COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry discusses the potential water and sewer rate increases in the city during Tuesday’s Three Rivers City Commission meeting.

One-year increases approved for TR water and sewer rates

City to re-evaluate rates in next couple years

THREE RIVERS — Water and sewer rates will be going up in Three Rivers, but it might not be as much as expected.

The Three Rivers City Commission approved a user fee ordinance update Tuesday that will see a one-year increase for water and sewer rates for city residents, with a potential revisit in the next couple of years. Previously, the rates were scheduled to go up over the next four years.

Commissioners voted 5-2 on the updated user fees, with Third District Commissioner Chris Abel and At-Large Commissioner Clayton Lyczynski dissenting.

The increase in rates is primarily due to an unfunded mandate by the state of Michigan created in 2018 for municipalities to replace all of their lead service lines by 2041, a response to the Flint Water Crisis. Many cities and municipalities around the state, including Three Rivers, have called on the Michigan Legislature to fund the mandate so they don’t have to raise rates for their residents to do so, and are urging residents to contact their state representatives to tell them to find a funding solution.

The ordinance passed will see water residential equivalent unit (REU) rates, otherwise known as the flat rate for services, go up from $25.40 per REU to $37.97 per REU on July 1. The REUs are equivalent to 122.4 gallons of water per day, and is a bi-monthly charge. Water commodity rates, which charges based on every 100 cubic feet of water used, will go up from $2.12 per 100 cubic feet to $2.60 per 100 cubic feet on July 1. Senior citizens get a 15 percent discount on both of these rates, with the discount on the commodity rate only up to the first 1,100 cubic feet.

Only one of the two sewer rates will be going up under the new plan, with the sewer commodity rate, which charges the same as the water commodity rate, going up from $2.69 per 100 cubic feet to $3.51 per 100 cubic feet on July 1. The sewer REU rate will stay the same at $57.09. Senior citizens receive the same 15 percent discount.

City Manager Joe Bippus said a letter explaining the changes and why they’re happening will be going out along with residents’ next water bill.

Two citizens spoke on the issue at the meeting, speaking on it during the separate public hearing on the city’s budget which occurred after the user fee ordinance was approved, both expressing their disapproval of the rate increase.

During discussion of the user fee ordinance, Abel said he still “couldn’t get over” the original four-year rate increases, and expressed his desire to vote no on the ordinance because of them.

“I just think we are moving before we’ve researched everything completely. I don’t want to pass this burden onto the taxpayers unless we absolutely have to,” Abel said. “I think we could do more work in here to try to bring these down. I know this first year we weren’t going to do any replacements with the exception of the construction going on, but I think we’ve got some time to explore this further and get these rate hikes lower.”

Abel also contended that the pipe replacements could be done for less than an estimated $10,000 per line if it can be done in-house. Lyczynski, in his comments, suggested the combined water and sewer rates still be increased, but at around 10 percent increments over the next four years, which he said would be “a much better pill to swallow” for residents so the increases don’t all happen at once.

Many on the commission, including First District Commissioner Pat Dane, At-Large Commissioner Daryl Griffith and Mayor Tom Lowry indicated they wanted to see the increases as a separate line item so residents can understand what they are and why the increases are happening.

“We just want to give them the sense of how much they’re being led by this unfunded mandate,” Lowry said. “I think we could do that as long as we look at the gross revenue change and then break it up that way.”

To the separate line item issue, City Finance Director Cathy Lawson said doing so would be equivalent to “redesigning how we do billing,” suggesting instead the billing department put a message at the bottom of the bill with an estimate of how much of the bill would go toward lead line replacement. Lowry indicated he was okay with having the message on the bill along with the letter Bippus mentioned.

Later in the discussion, Bippus suggested the city do the one-year rate increase and revisit it in “the next couple of years.” Even so, Lawson insisted either way, between the unfunded mandate and upcoming capital projects the city has coming up, including a replacement of Railroad Drive and water tower maintenance, water rates would have to go up.

“We have to raise rates or we have to reduce operating costs or look at those capital projects and look at which ones we’re not going to fund,” Lawson said.

Bippus said the city will attempt to apply for more grants, programs and loans to try to offset the expected high cost of lead line replacement.

“We’re in no hurry to be spend thrifts, we’ve got the city steady. We want to make it as cost-effective for everybody as well, but we also know the importance of maintaining our systems,” Bippus said. “We’ve lived in a time here where we didn’t maintain our systems and we got in some trouble over it. It’s hard to provide poor service to the residents, and it’s not the right way of doing things. I understand the difficulty of increasing the price.”

Fourth District Commissioner Carolyn McNary said the situation seemed “kind of abrupt,” but said providing clean water is “one of the most important things a city does.” She said people have come to her about water bills in the city, and mentioned the difficulties many in the city may have with paying their bill, suggesting that the proposed increase be stretched out so it isn’t so sudden.

“Our city has, last time I checked, over 30 percent at poverty level. It’s hard for people to pay for things that are necessary,” McNary said. “Even though I agree that we should do whatever we should do, raise the rates, because I want us to be safe, but if something else could be done, I suggest we put that up and do it.”

In the end, Lowry said the city has to be guardians of taxpayer money, and that the city can’t “kick the can down the road” on increases. He said voting against the increases is “human nature,” but that the city has to be “responsible guardians” of residents’ tax money.

“If you kick the can down the road, yeah you postpone some major jobs, but if you do it too many years, then something major’s going to happen that’s going to be much more expensive than just the additive increases. I can’t live with that,” Lowry said. “I don’t like the rates going up, I hate it. I don’t think we’ve missed anything significant, but if we don’t do it, we’re kicking the can down the road. Either it’s going to get worse down the road or you are taking the load off your shoulders and letting the next Commission make the decision, and that’s not right.”

In other business…

  • Commissioners approved the city’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The city’s general fund revenues under the budget are expected to be $5,068,952 for the year, with $5,228,952 in total expenditures for the year, with $160,000 in expenses over revenues. The total millage rate for residents will be 21.5364 for the year, with 11.4207 for the city’s general fund, 1.6793 for the library operating fund, 1.9588 for ambulance, 0.875 for the solid waste and disposal tax, 3.6985 for the city streets and sidewalks fund, and 1.9041 for the Downtown Development Authority.
  • Commissioners approved up to $230,000 from the city’s fund balance for Thompson Construction to complete the fourth parking lot and road at the Armstrong Park Sports Complex.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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