Council OK’s sewer, water rate hikes Tuesday

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By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos County Council approved an 8-percent rate increases for sewage rates and potable water rates Tuesday. The rates will take effect in the next billing cycle.

The rates were already approved by the Board of Public Utilities in June.

Motivation for both increases included the replacement of the White Rock Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is expected to cost between $13 and $14 million.

The sewage rate increase will mean an average monthly payment of $47.46 a month, or $569.52 a year.

For potable water, the rate hike will mean $471.60 a year, or $39.30 a month.

Council approved the rates based on an agreement that the Department of Public Utilities and the BPU will meet with council throughout the year to discuss possible ways to keep rates from going up on a yearly basis.

All of the projections DPU officials presented at the meeting showed yearly increases for both rates as the only way to pay for the new plant and to take care of aging infrastructure.

During the hearing, council members questioned DPU officials on their reasoning behind the rate increases.

DPU officials responded with projections that showed the DPU was just breaking even and that it did not have much capital in reserve. DPU Manager Tim Glasco said that while the DPU was going to bring in $4.8 million in sewage rate revenue this year, expenditures were projected to be $4.8 million also. He said that projection left out replacement costs, that that’s what it cost to operate the plant.

When asked about alternative funding, Glasco said the rates they’re charging now for sewage eliminated that possibility.

“We do not have the rate base to go for loans or any type of funding assistance to proceed with construction of the plant,” Glasco said.

DPU officials also addressed concerns that the rate hikes were based too much on Los Alamos median income, which the DPU says is $108,639.

“We do have a fairly high median income in this town and yes, the impact is more on the people that don’t have that kind of income, but the majority of the people in the town do have that kind of income,” said Deputy Utility Manager Robert Westervelt said.

Westervelt also added though that regardless of the income average, they made sure the rate hike is one that’s affordable to all.

According to Westervelt, Los Alamos sewer costs are about one half of 1 percent of the average annual household income.

“The industry standard is 2 percent of annual household income, which is considered very affordable,’ Westervelt said.

When it came time to vote for the second rate hike for potable water, County Council Vice President Susan O’Leary said one reason she voted for both increases was so the DPU would have an opportunity to secure a loan to pay for the new treatment plant, instead of basing the financing for the new plant solely on rate increases.

“I think it’s important for us to try and be open minded and really explore new funding opportunities…. that might actually lower rate increases in the future,” O’Leary said.

Councilor Antonio Maggiore agreed.

“It’s not easy. I don’t make anywhere near that average median income. It’s hard for me to vote for this and impose it on myself and I know there are plenty of people who are in a similar position to where I am,” Maggiore said. “But I also know that looking at the other side of this. This is necessary, but if this continues to be the only approach presented, I will continue to not vote for it, just rate increase after rate increase. I stand with Councilor O’Leary, in that I do think that more outside-the-box thinking, especially as we look at large projects and the like, needs to take a more permanent place in people’s minds.”