GRANGEVILLE – With several million dollars in Grangeville water system improvement projects proposed during the next two decades, the question is, how will rates be adjusted to best accommodate both the required work and what users are financially able to bear?
The Grangeville City Council listened for more than an hour last Monday, June 3, as representatives with JUB Engineering presented four alternatives to review, comments on which will be used to revise these into options the municipality can choose from and potentially adopt.
Figuring out what the city will charge users for its fees can be a confusing, complex formula with an alphabet soup of acronyms. As well, it involves the entirety of public utility issues imaginable from existing water capacity, needed repairs, wastewater plant chemistry, federally mandated upgrades and essential public safety concerns. “And then you try to explain it to the people paying the bills,” said Grangeville public works director Jeff McFrederick, “and they look at you like you’re full of it.”
This continues work started well more than a year ago on city long-range planning to provide an up-to-date view of both water and sewer infrastructure -- including maintenance and operation, regulatory demands, projected growth – and establish repair and renovation priorities.
“We’re trying to show the range of funding solutions,” said Brad Watson, who conducted the project’s rate analysis. The $11 million has got to come from somewhere, whether bonding or raising rates.” He clarified assumptions in the analysis were the city would have zero population growth in 20 years “which may not be realistic,” and no grants.
Alternatives the council left on the table were those that bonded for early capital improvements – a new well, and water tank – and provided choices for how additional projects would be funded, such as with cash from rate increases and an additional bond. What council pulled out of consideration was the first alternative, which would fund 20-year improvements by cash solely, an option Watson summed up as “pretty painful.”
“It means you can start building in year one,” he continued, “but your rate would jump up about three times from what it is now.”
Alternatives two through four council left for consideration involve rate increases from 60 to 40 percent, which would increase capital contributions from $300,000 to $80,000 a year. All three would bond up front for the well and tank; then alternative two would cash-fund the remainder, alternative three would shift remaining work to begin in year 10 and be cash-funded, and alternative four would start remaining work in year 13 and bond for high zone improvements.
The bite none was willing to support was alternative one; about an 180 percent increase that would raise $2 million a year.
David Watkins, JUB, agreed option one was extreme, but it was included to show the full spectrum of options. “Financially it is better. You fund early and then taper down as you need.”
Alternative one’s advantage was being able to start work immediately -- versus anywhere from five to 13 years out -- which could be advantageous to impending planned growth – specifically subdivisions – that are dependent on water system improvements to service them.
“It’s just hard to explain to people why their bill is going to be three times as much,” responded councilor Beryl Grant, who later recommended alternative one be pulled, leaving the remainder for more gradual rate increases, “and get a big enough bond to do the stuff we have to do.”
Watkins said the city also has the do-nothing option, which essentially is the status quo of annual rate increases, but he would still recommend money be set aside for capital improvements. But there are risks with this, and also with options three and four that push projects 10 or more years out to start.
“The risks, obviously, are your current system des not meet all current DEQ requirements,” he said, such as with low pressure areas and fire flow, “and DEQ will force you to meet them at some point. You haven’t been growing much, but if you start growing, DEQ will require them. It may halt any new connections until you meet the new requirements.”
Watkins clarified all these are estimates based on factors such as growth and consumption that change from year to year, and there are “millions of ways to skin this. What we change from here depends on you.”
In this 20-year plan, public works director Bob Mager emphasized the council not lose sight of the essential needs of a new well and water tank. Subsequent improvements to service planned subdivisions and head off DEQ mandates in the event of growth are dependent on these projects.
“If you don’t put water on the surface, we’re dead in the water,” he said.
But water is only half of the picture, as Mayor Wes Lester told the council, “the sewer plan looks even worse than the water.” This fall, the council should be receiving the draft comprehensive plan for sewer improvements, and Watkins gave a preliminary preview noting since 2006 the flow to the treatment plant has approximately doubled. Since city population has decreased slightly during this time, the increase is suspected to be due to infiltration.
“It could be cracked pipes, cracked service lines, it could be illegal connections if more sumps are tied in than before, but we know it’s not additional population, so it’s something else,” Watkins said, which as yet the full magnitude of the problem is not known.
From council discussion, consensus was to determine needs for both water and sewer projects and present the public with the full need for both.
“I’d rather be hit with both at once,” councilor Amy Farris said. “I think it’s a little less painful. But, it will be painful either way.”