Whitefish OKs increase to sewer, water rates

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Whitefish City Hall at the corner of East Second Street and Baker Avenue. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish’s sewer and water rates are set to increase this fall.

City Council Monday passed a resolution 4-1 to increase the rates based upon a 2016 study that recommended increases over several years to better align with the city’s cost of providing service. However, a few councilors seemed reluctant to approve the increase.

Councilor Andy Feury said the city has expenses that it has to cover to operate its utilities. He also noted his home is one of the areas with the highest rates for wastewater service so he understands concerns from homeowners about the increase.

“We don’t make money on this — we operate this,” he said. “This is not a profit set for us. It’s frustrating, but we can’t help it.”

The standard residential service for water is set to increase by .73 percent or about 30 cents per month, from $41.08 to $41.38.

The standard residential wastewater rate is set to increase by 13.9 percent or about $6.23, from $44.66 to $50.89.

This is for customers with a 5/8-inch meter and usage of 4,000 gallons of water and wastewater per month.

The city is also increasing rates for customers with landscape/irrigation meters with a usage of 10,000 gallons per month. The increase of 4.9 percent or about $2.10 would increase the rate from $42.80 to $44.90.

Three letters against the increases were submitted to Council in advance of the meeting and two people spoke against the increases during the meeting.

During public comment, Sue Malletta said the city needs to find other ways to raise funds to operate its utilities other than raising rates.

She pointed out that while the per gallon charges for Whitefish are not too far off from Columbia Falls and Kalispell, the base rates differ significantly. The combined base rate for both water and sewer for Whitefish for the lowest service class is $48.83, while Columbia Falls is $19.35 and Kalispell is $15.94.

“In my mind these base rates for Whitefish are outrageous,” she said. “I’m paying $921 per year before a drink of water is even taken or a toilet is flushed.”

Public Works Director Craig Workman said the reason Whitefish’s water base rate is higher than the other two cities is because of the difference in how drinking water is obtained.

“Whitefish gets its water from surface water,” he said. “That involves a more elaborate treatment process that requires more capital costs for the plant, additional staff to maintain the plant and additional costs for chemicals. Statewide Whitefish has one of the highest costs for water, but that’s because the source of our water is surface water.”

Workman added that the other two cities have also already upgraded their wastewater treatment plants similar to what is planned for Whitefish.

The city is in the midst of designing a new sequencing batch reactor plant, which is expected to be operational in 2021, and based upon preliminary engineering estimates could cost $15 million to $20 million. The city has said the plant would be the most cost-effective way to meet new discharge standards implemented by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Rate increases for water and wastewater do vary depending on which service class a home is located in throughout the city. Homes in one of the pressure zones throughout the city will likely see a greater increase in their bill.

Councilor Frank Sweeney, who voted against the increase, said he disagrees with charging some homes more for sewer service, especially those located on Whitefish Lake.

“I have heartburn about how we equitably distribute those costs,” he said. “We want as many people around the lake on sewer as we can. We, as a community, want this and should share in those costs.”

Workman explained that depending on the location of the home sewer waste may have to pass through one or more lift stations before reaching the wastewater plant. Those lift stations require additional maintenance.

“The rate study looked at the equability of our rates,” he said. “It found that it would not be fair to burden those users in the [areas where it doesn’t pass through lift stations] with the cost from those homes who require more elaborate collection systems.”

The increases come after the city in 2016 completed a comprehensive water and wastewater rate study. Based on recommendations of the study, the city is increasing the water and sewer utility rates because it says the increases are necessary to cover the cost of service, and provide for necessary capital improvement projects.

Workman said the study included a Cost of Service Analysis that measured the cost attributable to each user class against the amount of revenue provided by each user class, and the results were used to align costs and revenue.

The rate study recommended increasing water rates by 3.6 percent through 2021, while wastewater rates could increase by as much as 95 percent through 2026. Though each rate increase is considered year-by-year.

The city of Whitefish provides water service to about 3,250 residential customers and 320 commercial customers within the city limits. It also provides service to 68 residential and seven commercial customers outside the city limits.

Wastewater service is provided to about 3,530 customers in the city and about 106 outside the city.

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