Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Libby approves water, sewer rate increases

The Western News | May 14, 2024 7:00 AM

No amount of public displeasure could stop Libby City Councilors from approving increases for its water and sewer rates at the May 6 meeting.

Council president Brian Zimmerman motioned to pass the resolution. Ian Smith, the newest member of council, was not in support and made a new motion against the proposed increase. But he learned a decision had to be made on the initial motion before his could be considered. 

That never happened after Councilor Kristin Smith seconded Zimmerman’s motion for the increase in rates, which was approved 4-2. Gary Beach and Melissa Berke joined Zimmerman and Kristin Smith in voting for the increases while Hugh Taylor and Ian Smith voted against it.

Berke and Taylor participated in the meeting via Zoom. Berke’s vote had to be done by chat after attempts to un-mute her connection for her to vote on video conferencing were unsuccessful.

It was the city’s second attempt at raising water and sewer rates. The first occurred at its April 15 meeting when city council chambers were standing-room only as residents and business owners reiterated their concerns with increases that many say would inhibit further business growth and potentially put people out on the street.

The council held a work session on April 29 where a presentation of the city’s water and sewage infrastructure needs was presented.

It, too, saw several business owners and community members speak in opposition due to their concerns that such rate increases would discourage further business growth and potentially put people out on the street.

City officials have argued for the increases to maintain and replace old and aging infrastructure, including water lines and at the sewage treatment plant.

City administrator Sam Sikes and Mayor Peggy Williams have repeatedly said the city is justified in seeking the increase because of the work that needs done replacing water line mains, at the old dam and at the water treatment plant.

“We’re looking at $30 million to replace 2-inch, 4-inch and 6-inch water mains,” Sikes said. “We’ll need $3.4 million to dredge the lower reservoir and fixing the concrete, which has led to water leaks. And we’ll need $10 million for work at the water treatment plant.”

In terms of work done at Cabinet Heights, Williams said, “Using the ARPA grant funding on the Cabinet Heights project was wise because it was for public health and safety. The Cabinet Heights area was identified as having zero or negative fire flows which prevented the Libby Volunteer Fire Department from utilizing the fire hydrants. The city was paying to maintain fire tenders in case of a fire emergency. The lack of fire flow made it possible that ground water could weep into our water main and contaminate city water in the case of an emergency. By upsizing the line, the city mitigated both the health and the fire safety concerns in the area.”

Sikes also said there is equipment in the 40-year-old sewer treatment plant, “that’s gonna need replacing in the near future.”

He also said that the city has a current debt of $9 million for water and sewer projects it has undertaken in the past.

There were amendments to the initial plan meant to smooth the change of increased costs to those operating businesses, among others.

According to information provided by the city, it will charge identified users according to the Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDUs) on the Equivalent Users Classification list for apartments, duplexes, mobile home courts, hospitals, hotels, motels, rooming houses, residential institutions, schools and other commercial and residential uses that are determined to have an impact to the utility system.

The newly established EDU classifications will be charged 50% of the increased EDUs starting in June for the July 2024 billing cycle and the remaining 50% will begin in June 2025 for the July 2025 billing cycle.

Also, beginning in 2025, utility base rates will increase 4% each year through 2027 on July 1.

Commercial customers inside city limits on a three-quarter inch line will pay $52.71 per month for sewage services while those on a 1-inch line will pay $63.25 per month. The rates go as high as $395.29 per month for users on a 6-inch line.

Residential customers on a three-quarter inch sewage line will pay $43.92 per month. Those on a 1-inch line will pay $52.71.

Water rates vary depending on where customers live.

For city residential customers on a three-quarter inch line, the monthly rate will be $55.81 while county residents will pay $69.81. City commercial customers will pay $69.54 and county commercial customers will pay $71.91 per month.

Residential customers in the city on a 1-inch line will pay $57.42 per month and county customers will pay $70.42. For commercial users in the city on a 1-inch line the rate will be $92.48 per month and in the county, it will be $115.43.