Council votes against sewer rate increase

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By Jennifer Garcia

Utilities customers can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for now.

A divided council rejected an ordinance that would have increased sewer utility rates.

Four of the seven councilors had enough concerns about the increase to vote against it.

As a result, the motion to adopt the ordinance failed 4-3, with councilors Robert Gibson, Ralph Phelps and Mike Wismer voting in favor of the motion.

The increase would have provided approximately $300,000 of additional annual revenue to fund maintenance costs and would have built cash reserves.

The average residential bill would have increased by approximately $4 to be a total of approximately $45 a month. In addition, the minimum monthly bill would have increased by $2 a month, from $21.70 to $23.70.

The minimum monthly bill was established to allocate a reasonable portion of fixed costs to each customer for the “readiness reserve,” regardless of sewer usage.

Department of Public Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith was in council chambers last night, where he gave a brief presentation on the reasons for the increase and answered councilors’ questions.

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle questioned why Los Alamos County’s rates are higher than those in Santa Fe and other counties and made clear that he was against an increase.

Arrowsmith said more solids are being removed from effluent water at the new plant than were being done at the old wastewater treatment plant. As a result, the tipping charge for taking more solids to the landfill has increased, he explained.

He also said that it was not fair to compare the counties of Santa Fe and Los Alamos because the sewer plant in Santa Fe was paid for with grant money, versus the $13 million loan that Los Alamos County took out to pay for its plant.

“We have two wastewater treatment facilities instead of one. Santa Fe has lots of tourist volume that they can spread to commercial customers,” Arrowsmith further explained.

Councilor Nona Bowman said that she was very concerned with increasing sewer rates because of the economic problems that the nation is facing.

“Suppose we don’t raise the rates at this time,” Bowman said, “what will you cut back on?”

Arrowsmith said that currently the DPU is spending money to do life extension studies on the White Rock plant. “We might suspend that,” he said. “This is really the full cost of running the sewer system. Unless we reduce maintenance, I don’t think we can reduce the cost.”

Councilor Sharon Stover asked Arrowsmith what caused the need for the increase in sewer rates.

“When the original increase was planned, we projected a higher increase than we saw. We didn’t anticipate the use of potable water at the plant. We’ve spent $100,000 more on potable water than we anticipated.”

He also said the White Rock plant was built in the 1960s and the pumps at that plant are old, so ultimately those pumps will need to be replaced.

Christie Callie, a greenhouse owner from White Rock addressed council to express her concerns over the rate increase.

She said that even though the average commercial sewer bill is supposed to be around $40 a month, she paid $106 for her sewer bill last month.

“Most of the water I use doesn’t hit the sewer system. If I want to continue doing business in Los Alamos, I can’t. Between the water and sewer bills, I can’t afford it. I’m the only commercial greenhouse in Los Alamos.” She also said that she’s still using the old plant in White Rock.

Chiravalle said that council should look elsewhere for sources of funding, rather than put the burden on businesses and homeowners. “We’re already paying more than other counties in northern New Mexico,” he said.

Phelps did not share the same view, however. “We made the commitment to replace the plant. We spend a lot of time planning and reducing the cost. You can’t know what the cost will be when bringing a big project like that. It’s appropriate for attributes to be balanced. Dollars in, dollars out,” he said.

Council Chair Michael Wheeler asked if cash reserves could be relied on, in lieu of raising sewer rates.

County Attorney Mary McInerny said that the county charger establishes each utility to stand alone and separate from county government and vice versa, therefore, reserves cannot be used.

After McInerny’s explanation, Wheeler said, “I’m not convinced that $300,000 is needed. I’m inclined to vote against this.”

Following Wheeler’s comments, a vote was taken and the motion failed.