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City officials expect sewage rate increase

By ARTHUR HAHN/Managing Editor

Brenham officials say they know how much money the city is losing on its wastewater and water operations. They also say they know that rate increases are needed.

They don't yet know, however, how those increases will be spread out among its customers, although hefty jumps in industrial sewage rates appear likely.

City council members Thursday heard a consultant's report on cost of service studies for wastewater and water operations, the first such studies in about 12 years.

Both have revenue shortfalls, said Jack Stowe of R.W. Beck Inc. Water operations are "underfunded" by about $316,000, while wastewater's shortfall is even higher, at about $622,000.

"You're basically losing $2,000 a day in wastewater operations," Stowe told the council.

The city several years ago expanded its sewage treatment plant in what was initially thought to be an $8 million project. Council members at that time were stunned when told it would actually cost closer to $14 million.

The city also does not have accurate data on the plant's "load" -- the "strength" of sewage and where it's coming from, Stowe said.

"We don't even know if the plant's sized right," said councilman John Pledger, who is an engineer.

City Manager Terry Roberts said that "the historical record ... indicates that the city has never brought the industrial surcharges to a level that recoups the cost for treating waste above domestic strength levels."

Stowe's report includes a recommendation for no increase in residential sewage rates, but double-digit commercial and industrial rate hikes (45 percent and 24.5 percent, respectively).

Officials from Blue Bell Creameries have asserted that they would see their sewage treatment rates triple, from about $100,000 a year to more than $300,000.

But Stowe said the city must generate enough revenue to cover its water and wastewater treatment operations.

"Failure to act will result in greater losses and difficulty in providing continuous and adequate service," according to his report.

The city doesn't have data showing the potency of sewage and where it's coming from, so industrial sewage samples will be drawn.

Stowe said after that information is gathered, the cost of service study can be finalized to more accurately reflect how fees should be allocated. That is expected to take until October or December.

But because the city needs to begin reducing losses as quickly as possible, his report recommends an interim rate hike that would generate an additional $534,000 for wastewater operations.

Pledger said it is vital for all customer classes to begin paying their share of sewage treatment costs.

"We can't ask the individual homeowners to pay for it," he said. "I don't think we have a legal right to charge somebody for treating somebody else's sewage."

The council tabled an ordinance that would amend water and sewage rates.