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Sewer and water fee hikes, plans for sewer project

The Tetonia city council held a public hearing to present to the public proposals for raising water and sewer rates.  Ted Hendricks of The Development Company and Paul Scoresby of Scheiss & Co were at the meeting to speak to the details of the sewer upgrades needed.

Three Proposals
The council had on hand three proposals for upgrading the wastewater treatment system with a breakdown of the costs of each sewer.  The Proposals were labeled A-C.  Proposal A was dubbed the “Barebones Project” and would cost $397,000 but was questionable for whether it would meet new state wastewater rules and get DEQ approval. The estimated cost Proposal B, the “Midrange Project”, is $916,800 and could accommodate 80 more homes.  A revised version of Proposal C, “Large Project” was the project preferred by the city and the Development Company and will cost approximately $1.6 million.  

Fee raises overdue
Council Member Alan Wilder explained some of the reasons for needing to raise sewer and water fees.  He brought up the fact that currently the city charges all users one flat fee whereas they need to charge users with bigger water pipes (over 1.5”) and larger consumption rates higher sewer rates because these users put more demand on the sewer system.  They also talked about the need to charge people who use over 10,000 gallons an additional fee above the flat rate.

Council Member Rex Jardine said that the city should run like a business, that the fees have been too cheap for too long and with the impending wastewater treatment project costs are going to be even higher to the city.  For example, they will have to pay certified operators to manage and maintain the system.  He concluded that there were many justifications for and very few against.

Citizens supportive, ask questions
Most of the pubic comments offered were in support of raising the fees, with many people commenting that “it has to be done” although various many speakers also asked questions or raised concerns.  

VARD: Capital Improvements Plan? Impact Area fees?
VARD spoke in support of raising fees and raised two concerns.  The first was the need for a Capital Improvements Plan whereby the city could clearly plan for capital improvement projects such as water and sewer and citizens could know where their taxes were going.  VARD also recommended that the city decide whether they will provide sewer and water services in the area of impact and if so, what to charge those users in order to pay for the added cost of providing services to far-flung developments.  The cities of Victor and Driggs charge users in their impact areas 1.5 times the amount as users in the city.  If the fees charged to those in the impact area are the same as fees charged to city residents, then the city residents will essentially subsidize far-flung development.

How much different kinds of users should pay
Some of the public comments included, whether the fees were being raised high enough, that the citizens needed to pay for what they were getting, and that the new system is an investment for the city. Some also commented that the city could not afford to lose anymore time.  Another comment was made on the significance of new hook-ups and that the brunt of the costs for the new system should be paid for through new hook ups. Questions were also raised about rates for commercial users and whether those users would be paying more.   

Importance of citizen education and trust in council
A couple comments reflected the need for the city to inform residents about the particulars of the project and its financing so that people would know where there money would be going to.  One person asked whether raising monthly rates was a proper way to raise funds as opposed to passing a bond.  The council replied that to qualify for DEQ grants the city needed to raise rates by this amount to show that the city is capable of doing their share.  

In responding to questions Council Member Wilder stated that if the citizens wanted a multiplier added for fees to those outside city limits, to just say so and the city could add it.  At other points in the meeting he also asked what would citizens like to see in terms of hook up fees and also encouraged people to say now if they wanted a sewer project that would provide for an even greater capacity.

Proactively pursue growth
The people speaking in neutral and opposed also supported the raising of rates, they just had more concerns. One person commented that the city needed to proactively plan for and pursue growth and annexations, and that the more people that came into Tetonia, the cheaper the costs would be per citizen.  This person suggested that in order to plan for growth, and make it at least as cheap to live in Tetonia as in the county, perhaps a bigger project was needed.  It was also asked if the city could sell some land in order to help pay for the project and alleviate the burden on residents.

Comments by Ted Hendricks of The Development Company
Ted Hendricks of The Development Company gave an overview of the last 2-3 years and said that based on a feasibility study, Project C is the best project that the city can get while keeping costs down. He said the project was well-defined and well-documented and that the city had addressed all the concerns raised by the citizens. He said that the city had done more planning than people were aware of.  

Mr. Hendricks also addressed VARD's comment about the need for a Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) by saying that one was required and has been in place for two years. VARD double-checked with the City of Tetonia and a Capital Improvements Plan could not be located.  We wonder if Mr. Hendricks is referring to the city's sewer study or the city's comprehensive plan (not updated since the mid 1980s).  

Although the city's sewer study is one important part of the CIP, the CIP has other equally important components.  A CIP would provide a plan for large, physical improvements that are permanent in nature, including the basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of the community.  These facilities and services include transportation systems, parks, water, sewer, and municipal facilities.  A discussion of public infrastructure should also be part of the city's comprehensive plan, but a CIP is meant to provide a more in-depth investigation into the city's capital needs.  A CIP is more than a mere formality.  Without the planning that goes into a CIP, how are city residents to know that the city is spending their money efficiently and effectively?

Mr. Hendricks explained that funding the project would cost around $1.6 million with $750,000 to be raised though a bond, $300,000 through grants and another $500,000 through USDA's Rural Development program the later of which, the city would get final word on in 14 month.. He stressed that the city must pass the bond in order to get any other assistance, and that time was not on their side.  The city must act now. The next time that the city can hold a bond election is in August and if the bond passes, city residents will still not know until this time next year if all the funding can be put in place to build the new sewer system.  

Mr. Hendricks also said that that hook-up fees would handle the cost of growth in out-lying parts of the city or impact area, but that the city will have to re-visit fees in 6-8 months to make sure the fees are paying for the growth.  Again, VARD believes fairness dictates that those hooking on to the sewer in out-lying areas, should pay for the higher costs of being connected to city services.  City residents should not have to subsidize services to those who are farther away.  In terms of monthly rates, Mr. Hendricks said that rates should not stay the same for 10 to 15 years but increase along with rising costs.  He suggested that rates should be revisited every year to prevent big jumps at once.   

No decision was made by the council, who said they would hold more public hearings on the issue.  

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