More than 140,000 customers of Columbia’s water and sewer system won’t face a rate increase this year, but that could result in rates jumping double digits next year, critics warn.
City Council on Tuesday voted down a proposed 4.2 percent overall increase over the objections of Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine. Both said that delayed investment likely would trigger rate hikes of 10 percent or more next year – an election year for a majority of council.
The vote means city staff must find $5.3 million – the amount the rate increase would have generated – to cut from the 2016-2017 water system budget. None of the reductions will be to the sewer system, which is under a federal court mandate to make repairs.
The cut will further delay a long-planned conversion to automatic meter readers, Devine said. The vote was 4-2 because Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, who is undergoing cancer treatments, did not participate in the meeting.
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The rate increase triggered a heated exchange among council members during debate over the city’s $310.3 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Council adopted the overall budget on a first vote. A final vote is set for June 21.
Councilmen Sam Davis and Moe Baddourah led the argument against a rate increase, saying council needs to make cuts elsewhere in the spending plan. Voting with them were Councilmen Howard Duvall and Ed McDowell.
The rate increase would have added from $2.26 to $3.80 to monthly bills for typical residential water and sewer customers, according to the city’s calculations. The lower number would have been for customers who live inside the city; the larger for out-of-city customers.
Here are the figures council has tentatively adopted for the upcoming fiscal year:
▪ $143.2 million for the water and sewer systems
▪ $138.8 million for the general fund that pays for most city government operations
▪ $10.8 million to be spent from meal-tax revenue to attract tourism
▪ $8.2 million to operate parking services
▪ $7.2 million for the stormwater system
▪ $2.1 million to be spent from hotel/motel tax revenue to help attract tourism.