Council discusses solutions for water rates issue

ALPENA – Aware that talk about a water rate hike has raised the ire of some residents, council members looked for creative solutions Monday. They need to come up with more than $20 million for water and sewer system repairs over a seven-year period, while keeping consumer costs reasonable.

One answer could be methane, a flammable gas generated from raw sewage and organic waste.

“We’ve been very proud of having the lowest rates, but at the cost of our infrastructure,” City Engineer Rich Sullenger said.

The staff is still at work processing the hard numbers of maintenance and repair, he said, adding that the question is how to present it to the public.

“The solution is usually to kick the problem down the road and talk about our low water and sewer rates,” Councilman Sam Eiler said.

But he and Mayor Matt Waligora expressed concerns about what future councils would face.

The issue is challenging because the city needs $3.5 million annually over the next seven years to repair and maintain an outdated water system for 10,000 residents, Eiler said. That will be a hard sell until residents find raw sewage coming out of their taps instead of pristine water, he said.

“We’re going to be creative to raise rates and not beat up our citizens,” Councilman Shawn Sexton said.

Several suggestions were made concerning the issue:

* the city needs to prioritize projects that need immediate attention and those that can wait if a multi-million dollar budget is available through capitalization charges to users.

* the city might issue a bond to pay for the system

* staff would have to find creative ways to cut costs. The new water meters make billing easier.

* the city manager should pursue grants that might pay for some of the repairs

* the staff should look at other streams of revenue, including the sale of methane, a byproduct of sewage and organic waste, such as spoiled food from grocery stores and hospitals.

Mike Glowinski, operations manager for United Water, said the plant installed a methane-fueled generator that reduced power consumption 20 percent. The company also uses methane to provide heat in its waste digester system, which breaks down solids.

While the Environmental Protection Agency has strict guidelines about the use of the fuel, the machine in use was built before those regulations went into effect, officials said.

Waligora suggested that residents be billed once a month instead of quarterly to make increases easier to handle. Although the city would incur additional costs for billing, it might make rate increases and surcharges more palatable to consumers.

Resident Chuck Pontkowski, who addressed the council during public comment, said such increases would be difficult for people on fixed incomes.

“Didn’t we just have a 10 percent increase?” he said. “Everybody wants something from citizens. When does the citizen get their money in return?”

But after hearing the suggestions from city staff and council members, he said he was more optimistic.