Residents voice concerns over water rates

ALPENA – The City of Alpena is intent on raising water rates and sewer rates in one fashion or another in order to maintain and improve water and sewer systems. The move does not seem to be popular with many residents, as was displayed during the public comment of a public hearing on the matter Monday night before the Alpena Municipal Council meeting.

One by one residents of the city and several from Alpena Township asked council to reconsider the price increases that would bump water and sewer rates enough to garner an estimated $1.9 million to use toward operation, maintenance and capital costs, which continue to climb.

The current rate charged city customers $4.18 per 1,000 gallons of water and $4.99 for the same amount of sewage use. The township only has been charged $2.90 for water and $3.47 for sewer for the same use amount. There also are additional costs for billing, debt and operations and maintenance costs.

The proposal from city staff to the council would see the water rate increase to $4.95 for water and $5.35 per 1,000 for both city users and the township government who purchase the water and redistribute it to its own customers. Instead of having a minimum billing charge for 6,000 gallons the city would charge one a month based on every 1,000 gallons used, along with other charges.

City resident Ron Carpenter said his last quarterly bill was for $80 for 8,000 gallons of use. He said when he did the math on the proposed rates, it would be about $130 over the same time period of time. He said his family and others will have a difficult time making room in their budget to cover the increase.

“That would raise my bill by 62.5 percent. I believe the fees are misleading and beyond being aggressive,” Carpenter said. “No matter how you slice it or categorize it, I can’t go in and only pay my ready-to-serve charge, or just my sewer or just water. I have to pay the whole thing. You can make it look any way you want, but the facts are the facts and the numbers don’t lie. I don’t think my Social Security is going to go up 62 percent to help pay for my water.”

Tom VanDuinen also lives in the city and is opposed to the rates. He said he presented council a list of 20 points he wanted the council to consider before deciding to vote to approve the new water and sewer rates. He asked council why water and sewer issues always have to be a focal point in city business and also questioned the cost of contracting United Water to manage the water and sewer plants and the billing procedures.

“I want to know how much of the money from the increase goes to the contractor,” VanDuinen asked. “There are so many things wrong, I don’t know where to begin. Everything about this water and sewer issue is all wet and stinks to high heaven and been going on for several years. Why are we socking it to our township friends? As elected representatives put yourself back in our place and see if you like what you are about to do now.”

City resident Angie Skiba had some concerns about where the added money would be going and what it would be used for. She said she is aware that replacements and improvement within the system is needed, but wanted more information about how the money would be spent.

“I would like to see an actual breakdown to see what projects you are referring to and what the monetary value is for each,” Skiba said. “We were told we needed new meters and they were forced upon us, even though I didn’t think they were needed. They were changed out and then they did not generate the revenue that was expected. Now we are forced to pay monthly bills, instead of quarterly, and pay a billing fee 12 times instead of four. Please listen to the citizens and vote no.”

City Manager Greg Sundin told Skiba and those in attendance a list of water and sewer projects that are needed or will be needed in the near future, along with the estimated cost of each, can be found in the city’s capital improvement plan on the city’s website.

Wes Gentry said he is a private person and does not live in the city. He said he does a lot behind the scenes in the city, in terms of providing housing, development and has future ambitions in it. Gentry said the increases would impact not only him and his tenants, but potentially future growth in the city.

“I feel compelled as an entrepreneur and land owner that I would request you implement this in over a longer period of time,” Gentry said. “There are also some other business people I’m involved with and we have tentative plans to do some large scale projects in Alpena and I’m very concerned with this being slapped upon us that it may leave a bad taste in our mouths enough to not pursue these other projects. We’re taking about multi-million dollar things. As a business owner and landowner I’m very concerned about the future.”

City resident Jim Murphy said increasing rates would be a poor decision and would impact many people, who are struggling to make ends meet at this time.

“I have poured over the numbers for the last month and needless to say I’m upset,” Murphy said. “I want the council to look around this room and and take a good hard look at the people you see sitting here. Most of these people are retirees on fixed incomes. I’m upset. You bet I’m upset. Maybe the money will be used properly, but maybe it won’t. We’ll never know.”

Juergen Thusat is a township resident who is opposed to the city raising rates. He said the township is not an ordinary customer because the city can’t legally turn off the water to the township no matter what, so that is one way it is different from other consumers. Thusat said he feels the township is being forced to help cover the cost of the aging water and sewer system in the city.

“Why are we being forced to pay for your lack of planning? That is what this is,” Thusat said. “I think you are creating an even bigger problem than you are even contemplating. The biggest problem we have is for economic development. It is really taking off in this community. It requires cooperation between the city, township and county. This will not help cooperation at all.”

After the hearing council voted to have staff look at other implementation options that could be done over a two or three year period.

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