Council set to mull sewer rate hikes

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By Arin McKenna

Those with firsthand experience of failures in the county’s aging wastewater infrastructure — such as the Manhattan Loop resident who reported a geyser of sewage from the manhole in her backyard — may not quibble with a proposed sewer rate increase the Los Alamos County Council is set to hear Tuesday. 

However, the proposed increase is a sharp one and it will likely stir some debate.

A flat rate of $25.31 per month plus a $7 customer charge would immediately go into effect for residential customers. Homeowners that consume a winter average of 4,000 gallons of potable water per month would see a slight decrease in their sewer bill for the first year. 

Apartment complexes would be charged a flat fee of $21.09 per dwelling, plus the $7 customer charge. Currently, apartment complexes pay $17 to $24 per dwelling, depending on the winter average of potable water consumed. Most of these customers will see an increase of 15 to 20 percent but a few will actually see a decrease at the outset of the proposed rate’s implementation. 

Commercial customers will continue to be charged a variable rate, but will pay the $7 customer fee in lieu of the previous fixed rate. The variable rate will increase from $5.89 to $11.91 and be based on the winter average of potable water consumed. A commercial customer with a winter average consumption of 100,000 gallons of potable water would see its sewer bill go from $744.88 to $1,198 under the new rate.

In July, all rates would increase by eight percent and be raised eight percent a year through 2016.

According to the Department of Public Utilities, rate increases are needed in order to replace the wastewater collection system. Staff assessed capital requirements for the next 10 years to determine an amount of revenue needed, and arrived at the current plan after receiving council direction on several options in July 2012.

The Manhattan Loop replacement project is a good example of the challenges DPU faces. For one thing, the line runs underneath several private residences. 

“There are other techniques we’ve used in other areas, like pulling a new pipe through the old one, directional boring and things like that which can make things cheaper, but in this particular area, that’s just not practical because it goes under homes,” DPU Manager John Arrowsmith said. “If a line were to burst under one of these homes, some kind of catastrophic failure, which would be a disaster.”

To avoid running sewer lines under residences, the sewer line will be moved into the canyon during replacement. The project is estimated to cost approximately $1 million. 

Lines that drop into the canyon present another challenge. Most are bolted to the side of the canyon, making them prone to freezing and splitting open during the winter. They are also very difficult to reach and repair. 

New technology allows DPU to bore through the mesa and completely enclose the line, but that solution is also considerably more expensive. However, Arrowsmith asserts that solid, long-term solutions are needed to fix issues like these.

“Over the years, the sewer utility has been the smallest one with the lowest revenues, and our employees have really been patching things together,” Arrowsmith said. “But we shouldn’t be trying to do things on the cheap. We need to fix things correctly, but that takes money. Customers are rightly concerned about containing the sewer flow until it gets to the sewer plant, but we have to be working in the canyons and in rough terrain like that and making proper fixes that are expensive.”

DPU is also seeking a more equitable distribution of costs with the new rates. Current rates largely use water consumption to estimate usage. 

“Over the years, as we’ve raised sewer rates under the old methodology, it’s gotten kind of weighted toward the consumption side. So we have a few customers that have extremely high bills, then we have a lot of customers that have extremely low consumption and low bills,” Arrowsmith said. “We found that high use customers were in fact subsidizing the low use customers. And also, as a class, those residential customers were subsidizing commercial customers.”

Staff believed that having a fixed residential rate and a commercial rate based on usage will address those issues. The ordinance also has some flexibility built into it that allows DPU to work with commercial customers to come up with an approximation of how much water is actually “going down the drain.”

The fixed cost for building sewage treatment plants and collection lines is also the reason households will have a fixed rate regardless of size. 

Council will decide whether to approve the new ordinance at 7 p.m., Feb. 26 in council chambers.