Officials weigh higher sewer rates in Libby

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The Libby Water and Sewer Committee is proposing increasing sewer rates in the coming year despite criticism that the process lacked transparency.

City Councilor Brian Zimmerman unveiled the committee’s recommendations at the council’s Nov. 18 meeting. Under the proposed changes, the sewer base rate would go from $26.63 to $29.75 each month. The sewer rate, based on water consumption, would rise from $2 to $2.85 per thousand gallons used each month.

The committee also recommended changing the way officials measure water consumption. Currently, the city averages the amount of water used from October to December for the following yearly billing cycle. The new system would base the fee on total water consumption as shown in a resident’s billing period.

The recommendations call for annual four percent increases of the base rate, subject to review. Sewer rates were last changed in 2011, officials said.

“We’ve tried to come up with the easiest and least [painful] solution we could come up with for all of our customers,” Zimmerman said. “I know there are going to be a couple that are going to be upsetting, but for the most part this should even out pretty well.”

But resident and former city councilor DC Orr criticized the lack of transparency in the process. When he asked for minutes of the committee’s previous meetings, Zimmerman said none had been filed.

The lack of formal minutes robbed residents of their ability to keep tabs on the committee, Orr said.

“Everything you’re saying here tonight, you’re throwing out absolutely no information,” he said. “Essentially, you are requiring the people of Libby to be at your committee meeting to know what you’re doing. … That’s not how government works, that’s not how transparent government works.”

Zimmerman agreed to submit minutes for the previous meetings at Mayor Brent Teske’s request.

Orr asked city councilors to table the recommendations until meeting minutes were collected. It’s the only way to let residents know what was discussed during the years long effort, he said.

“You guys haven’t given any information on what you discussed and why the costs are going up, why you’re losing money and what ways you’ve tried to mitigate that,” Orr said. “Maybe that’s been discussed at the meetings, but if we don’t have any minutes, how’s the public supposed to come up to speed on this? What you’re going to do is alienate the public.”

Teske noted that by accepting the sewer rate recommendations, city council was setting up a public hearing before the changes are adopted. It is scheduled for Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. at City Hall and will be advertised, officials said.

“There will be a number of other opportunities for the public to speak on it before it’s pushed through,” Teske said.

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