Hard choices face city about water rates

ALPENA – After hearing details about how drastic the city’s water and sewer system needs updates and how there is little money in the appropriate funds to do the needed work, Alpena Municipal Council has a difficult decision to make: Does it raise the fees to begin fixing the failing infrastructure, or delay price hikes and hold risk system failures and higher repair costs down the road?

Gosling Czubak, a firm the city hired to study the system, the fees and the water and sewer agreement with Alpena Township, told council that portions of the piping are more than a century old and many upgrades are needed.

The city is aware of the need to do work, but has delayed the projects in its capital improvement plan because of a lack of money. Mayor Matt Waligora said raising rates is not something the council wants to do, but in order to address the issues actions should be taken soon.

“The council has moved significant improvement projects back year after year because we don’t have the fund balance to do them,” Waligora said. “If we don’t raise rates things are going to be much worse five or 10 years from now and much more costly. I’m not going to be the guy who does things the comfortable way and have the next mayor or council wish we would have done something.”

Waligora said he understands many people in Alpena already are struggling to make ends meet and wishes there were other options. He said he hopes the people in the community understand the seriousness of the situation and work with the council to help make it through the difficult times.

“I really don’t see this as a reason to get angry. I see it as something that needs to be done out of necessity and I think people who know how bad the water system is will understand,” Waligora said. “I do know that you will be hard pressed to find five people like the ones on the council who are more concerned about people’s pocketbooks right now, but we have to be realistic too. We can’t keep putting Band Aids on the problems. It will only cost us much more later.”

Councilman Mike Nowak said with the budget as tight as it is and little reserves, he sees no other solution to the problem than to raise the water and sewer prices.

“There is just no way we are going to be able to cut ourselves out of this one,” Nowak said.”We need to improve the system with as little impact to the citizens as possible. We are all in this together and if we keep kicking the can down the road much further we are going to start losing things and it will be much more expensive for everybody. If we sit on our hands and do nothing it will only be worse later.”

Councilman Sam Eiler is the senior member on the council and has seen many of the needed projects get delayed due to a shortage of money. He said the time has come where action needs to be taken, even though it might be painful to some.

“I don’t think it is possible to do nothing. We have deferred projects to balance budgets, but now things like the leak and damage to Ripley Boulevard are taking place and we are seeing the results of the delays. I think the council is ready to face this, at least that is my hope.”

Gosling Czubak gave several examples on how the city could raise rates to raise the $3.5 million it needs to do the projects in the seven year capital improvement plan. One was a rate hike by consumption, while a second raised rates and added a $30 capital improvement charge for both water and sewer. The extra $60 would be billed quarterly.

The final option and the one recommended would be even more costly to users. It would call for a tiered rate hike with a $30 charge for water and sewer that would escalate in price for the next seven years. In the second year the $30 charges would increase by $12, and would for each of the next five years. Families who use 10,000 gallons of water would see bills at about $260 in the seventh year. People who use 6,000 gallons would see their bills leap from about $115 in the first year to nearly $225 in the last year of the plan.

Waligora said the council is going to work hard to come up with other options and no increase is imminent.

“We have a lot of things to consider before something is put in place,” Waligora said. “Like I said before though. We have to face reality that something needs to be done or we will be sorry we didn’t later.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews. Read his blog, Upon Further Review … at www.thealpenanews.com