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Norman, Oklahoma to vote on 85% water rte increase

The Norman Transcript
March 05, 2006

Norman voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to increase water rates, the first raise in about 10 years.

The proposed increase would fund about $44 million for maintenance of the water treatment system and unfunded federal mandates.

City staff has said the raise would fund about five years of maintenance needs.

Norman is the only city in the state where voters have to approve utility rate increases. City councils are responsible for rate increases in other cities.

"Having that power to approve rates increase puts a responsibility on voters," said Ward 1 councilmember Bob Thompson at a ward meeting last week. "You have to be willing to step up to the plate and give yourself an increase when it's needed."

About $11 million would replace 15 wells knocked offline for exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's limit of 10 parts per billion of naturally occurring arsenic from the Garber-Wellington Aquifer.

The new wells would be located farther east where arsenic levels have been shown to be lower. Test wells have been drilled to ensure levels are within the required parameters.

Capital projects engineer Bryan Mitchell said private well owners should not be affected by the city's new wells. Private wells are typically drilled about 100 to 200 feet, with production wells at about 700 feet.

The city's wells will be encased for the first 200 feet.

"We're doing this so we don't have interface between private wells and production wells," Mitchell said.

The rate increase includes 15 cents to eliminate taste and odor issues.

Maintenance projects would include:

1) Painting of all the water storage tanks;

2) $100,000 per year for five years for "Hot Soil" replacement project;

3) Initiating a meter replacement program;

4) Enlargement of 1.5 million feet of raw water line from Lake Thunderbird to the Water Treatment Plant and addition of a clarifier at the WTP;

5) Several WTP Projects, including replacing filter media, sludge disposal, emergency generator, replace lime slakers, additional control systems, pre-disinfection as required by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and EPA.

6) Three to four projects per year for the "Urban Service Area Water Line" Projects

7) Some portion of three of the water lines recommended in the Water Distribution Model.

The projects honed down from about $100 million in water system needs identified by city staff.

"(The water rate increase) doesn't answer everything, but it's a good starting place," said Ward 5 councilmember Rachel Butler.

The rates also do not include continued capital projects for maintenance, inflationary trends or new required regulations after five years.

Butler said the taste-and-odor solution may help the city deal with future federal regulations in the works.

The proposed rates compare to other similarly sized cities favorably. The average 10,000-gallon per month household would be about $24.50 per month, compared to the current $13.36.

About 80 percent of Norman customers use 10,000 gallons or less per month.

Costs for the same 10,000-gallon user would be: Edmond, $37.97; Denton, Texas, $35.55; Moore, $29.90; Midwest City, $29.13; Lawrence, Kan., $28.65; Oklahoma City, $27.25; Lawton, $26.17; Broken Arrow, $24.60; Tulsa, $23.65; and Enid, $18.43.

The city's water system is run from an enterprise fund, which uses water revenues to pay for its water system.

"I like that our wastewater, water, etc. are enterprise funds," said Ken Komiske, utilities director at the ward meeting. "You use it, you pay for it."

In 1999, the city implemented an inverted rate structure to encourage conservation, with higher users paying higher water rates.

In 2000, residents used an average of 136 gallons per person per day, with it rising to 142 gallons average in 2001.

But since that time, usage has steadily dropped.

In 2002, residents used 138 gallons per person; 2003, 134 gallons; and 2004, 133 gallons.

Low-income water customers' base fee would be reduced 25 percent, similar to what the city does currently for low-income sanitation customers.

Low income would be as defined by the Housing and Community Development Act. About 1,035 sanitation customers take advantage of the reduced rate.

A charter revision change, which would not be on this ballot, would require a review of at least one of the three utility enterprise funds every three years to assess whether costs were in line with rates. The change would be included in a future municipal election.

"It would force the council to address it, but it leaves us as citizens still in control of our own decisions," Thompson said. "I hope this is our last dramatic increase."