Will Water Rate Increase Have You Drowning?

By Maureen Mespell
By Rachel Martin
By Max Resnik

February 7, 2012 Updated Feb 8, 2012 at 12:15 AM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Indiana’s NewsCenter) – Fort Wayne residents will see a 40 percent increase in their water bills over the next two years.

February 7, 2012 Update:

Tuesday night, Fort Wayne City Council held formal discussion with City Utilities officials on the water rate hike. City Council President, Tom Smith, says there has to be other alternatives to making residents pay 40 percent more for water over the next two years.

"The citizen out there, his wallet's under seige all the time. There's no question we need to make improvments to the system, but do we need this much right now? I think we could lower it and still maintain and protect our system," Smith said.

Council members asked if it was possible to either lower the rate to 30 or 20 percent, or spread the rate increase over a longer period of time, like 5-7 years instead of just two. Council members say they want to help the citizens of Fort Wayne who are already facing numerous financial increases over the next few years.

Kumar Menon, Director of Fort Wayne City Utilities, the main reason for the increase is to pay for improving and repairing water mains, and to compensate for increasing operating costs. He says there's no way to get out of the rate increase because it's necessary for the city's water, but City Utilities can definitely explore other options.

"Council speaks for the community, and we want to make sure we respect Council's comments. We will go back today, beginning today and stay as late as necessary and start the conversation of what can we do to look at different alternatives," Menon said. "We want to make sure we have conversations with the Council over the next several days and before we come back we have some options."

City Council will hold a public session on the matter with City Utilities next Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, City Utilities hosted the first of four public information sessions around Fort Wayne this week to address concerns about the water rate hike.

The first session was held today by City Utilities CFO Len Poehler at the Georgetown Library. Poehler says the rate adjustment is long overdue and will benefit the city’s water main system.

“We've put the rate increase off or rate adjustment off for seven years. We've anticipated this situation. We've put it off as long as we could, but after seven years, you can imagine the impacts or the pressures of cost increases over that time period.”

To give perspective on the rate increase, the City says the dollar a consumer might pay for a 20 ounce bottle of water is equivalent to 4,000 20 ounce water bottles a consumer could receive from his or her tap.
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The City of Fort Wayne held a public meeting Monday night, where City Utilities officials explained why they are raising water rates.

To some people, a 40 percent rate increase sounds like a lot. But, when Mary Jane Slaton, Public Information Officer for Fort Wayne City Utilities, broke down the figures, it equals to about $7 a month through 2014. Slaton says it will be a $4 increase in 2013, and an additional $3 increase in 2014. Slaton says Fort Wayne residents haven’t seen a rate increase since 2006.

Someone who uses 5,000 gallons a month currently pays between $17 and $18 plus tax. By next year, that rate will increase to about $21, and increase to between $24 and $25 by 2014.

Slaton says although water usage has decreased over the past 10 years, costs for fuel, chemicals, and electricity have increased. The rate increase is necessary to pay for those costs and for water main repairs and prevention. Slaton says the average water main break costs $5,600 to repair.

“Just talking about how much money we spend on those, doesn’t take into account some of those more unseen factors that people experience,” Slaton said. “You won’t have water to brush your teeth, or flush, or do the laundry. Worst case scenario is the fire department rolls up to a fire and they don’t have any water because of a water main break somewhere.”

A small part of the rate increase will also go toward the new UV light filtration system, required by the Federal Government, that will be installed this Spring. Slaton says there have been over 900 water main breaks over the past two years—404 last year, and a record 529 in 2010.

Slaton attributes water main breaks to the quality of the cast iron pipes that were built in the 1940’s through 1970’s. “Cast iron was not as good of quality as it was previously,” she said. There are water mains in the city that are close to 100 years old, but she said those mins need the least amount of fixing. She also says the weather plays a large factor.

“When we have a long period of hot, dry weather and the ground is really dry, it actually pulls away from the main. So if we have a little pressure surge, that can cause a blow out,” she said.

According to Slaton, once a water main has been broken, it’s more vulnerable to breaks in the future. There are 1,160 miles worth of water mains running through the streets of the Fort Wayne. With the rate increases, the city’s goal is to replace one percent, about 12 miles, of water mains each year over the next five years. Slaton says the ultimate goal is to avoid 2,939 water main breaks by 2015. With current rates and budgeting, the city is only able to fix a few miles of pipe per year. About 10 percent of the operating budget goes toward water main breaks.

HenryEtta Savage, Fort Wayne, says she’s not thrilled with having to pay more for water, but thinks it might help to improve its quality.

“I think it'll be worth it. To get a better taste of our water and to maintain the water breaks within not only the neighborhoods, but within the city as a whole.” Savage said. “So hopefully it’ll suffice and give us what we’re looking for, for the money we have to pay out of our pockets.”

Savage says there are a lot of people who are laid off, don’t have jobs, and can’t find jobs who are already struggling to maintain payments. She agrees with Slaton that several dollars more a month might hinder some residents.

“When you think about what you get for that additional $7 a month over a couple years, water is an essential of life and we think it’s of good value,” Slaton said.

“Yes, we need the water to maintain our bodies, but I think it will help in the long run. I’m looking forward to seeing what it will do for us,” Savage said.

The Board of Public Works already approved the rate increase, but Fort Wayne City Utilities still needs approval from other governing bodies, like City Council. Utilities officials will propose the rate increase to the council Tuesday night.




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