City votes to increase water rates

ALPENA – After much consideration and public input, Alpena Municipal Council voted for a water rate increase that will phase in higher commodity costs over two years.

The council voted 4-1 on the increase, with Councilman Mike Nowak voting no. He favored another option that also would have phased in ready-to-serve fees, a flat rate for water and sewer customers that City Manager Greg Sundin explained goes toward capital improvements.

Instead, council approved a plan where the full ready-to-serve fees will kick in for the first year. Mayor Matt Waligora said he believes this makes more sense for what the city is trying to accomplish through the rate increases.

Effective May 1, water and sewer customers will be charged ready-to-serve fees ranging from $10 for one-inch meters or smaller to $500 for six-inch meters and larger. Total commodity charges will be $9.74 per 1,000 gallons for a month in the first year, and $10.30 the next. It’ll raise $1.663 million in water and sewer funds in the first year and $1.952 million in the second.

City Engineer Rich Sullenger said it’s less than what a water study said the city should have to keep its system in shape, but it’s nearly $1 million more than what current water rates earn. Plus, passing such a massive rate increase on to city residents would be unreasonable.

Waligora has heard from quite a few people about the impact it will have on their finances, he said. They’ve come to almost every meeting at which rates were discussed and sent emails. While he understands it’ll hurt some residents more than others, the city has to charge enough to keep its infrastructure in good repair.

“I have compassion for people that this will affect, but at the same time we have to set rates that are realistic,” he said. “Nobody wants to see a raise in rates.”

Waligora added there’s help available for those struggling to pay their bills, and he urged anyone who can’t pay their water bill to call United Water to make arrangements.

Billing will remain on a quarterly basis under the new plan. The council had considered plans that would’ve charged them monthly, and one resident who spoke during public comments supported the idea. Jane Aubrey, owner of Ton ‘O Suds Laundromat, said quarterly bills come due at the same time as her quarterly tax payments. It’s a big hit for her business, which uses a million gallons of water per year.

“I don’t like that rates are going to go up, but it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s sad that it wasn’t taken care of in the past with gradual increases, but that’s not this council’s fault.”

However, council members all said they’ve heard many comments from the public in favor of staying with quarterly billing. Councilwoman Cindy Johnson agreed and pointed out the billing fees for a monthly scheme would cost customers just over $47 more per year. After the meeting, Waligora said it would give customers a more accurate comparison in the first year.

“If it’s an issue, if people can’t handle it, it’s something that we can always revisit,” Johnson said.

Aubrey’s comments echoed what most of the public said to the council, Sexton said, and he gave them credit for understanding why the city has to raise rates. He also believes city officials have done everything they can to meet people halfway.

Council members originally split on whether to include a phase-in for ready-to-serve fees as well. Councilman Mike Nowak believed this was the best option for residents, although the idea was defeated when Johnson, Councilwoman Susan Nielsen and Waligora voted no.

In other business:

  • council approved a resolution to adopt the Alpena County hazard mitigation plan. Fire Chief Bill Forbush told council the plan is finished and available for their review, but isn’t available to the public due to the sensitive material it contains.
  • council approved changes to the city concrete plan. Sullenger said prices will increase with the rate of inflation, and city property owners who want their sidewalks replaced must pay $2.01 per square foot.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.