Water, sewer rate hikes proposed for Columbus

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The Columbus Department of Public Utilities is recommending an 18 percent increase in water rates and a 10 percent hike in sewer rates for 2008, as the city is inundated with rising costs and unfunded mandates.

Director Tatyana Arsh presented the proposals to City Council’s utilities committee Nov. 14, and also discussed the pressure her department is under to make upgrades to its operations.

Along with a 5 percent increase in the rates for storm sewer services, Columbus customers would absorb a 12.5 percent increase in their total bill, or about $21 a quarter, Arsh said.

Suburbs served by Columbus, including Bexley, would see a 13.4 percent increase, or $25 a quarter. Residents eligible for the low-income discount would see a $19 quarterly increase.

The recommended rate increases have the endorsement of Auditor Hugh Dorrian.

The department is financed through revenue collected from customers, and not through the general fund or taxes, Arsh pointed out.

Since December, 2003, it has seen its costs for petroleum jump 138 percent, its diesel fuel costs increase 140 percent and its natural gas costs rise 26 percent.

Over the next five years the department will be undertaking $512 million in capital improvements, including a $140 million underground reservoir and $40 million for both water plant and water distribution improvements.

Arsh said she did not want to see Columbus left high and dry like Atlanta, which is in the middle of a drought and has only a 70-day supply of water left.

While the governor of Georgia prays for rain, Arsh said she thinks there are better ways to ensure an adequate water supply, and promised to "make sure Columbus is never in the situation that Atlanta is in."

Her department is also embarking on a $1.3 billion project to upgrade its sewer system, including $500 million to increase the capacity of its wastewater treatment and $300 million for a tunnel 18 feet in diameter and 150 feet underground to carry waste water.

Columbus and other cities are under pressure from the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies to release less untreated sewage into waterways.

The agencies want the cities to complete the improvements in 20 years, while Arsh and others believe 40 years is a more financially feasible timeline.

That dispute could end up in court, Arsh said.

The other problem is that federal dollars to comply with the Clean Water Act have virtually evaporated, according to Arsh.

In 1991, $2.3 billion was available to the states through grants and low-interest loans for water and sewer projects. The figure projected to be available in 2008 is $690 million.

Ten years ago, Columbus would have been eligible for $100 million from the loan program, but today the maximum the city could receive is $35 million, Arsh explained.

A resolution in the House of Representatives urging more funding estimates that there will be a funding gap of between $300 billion and $500 billion over the next 20 years for needed water infrastructure improvements.

A coalition of clean water agencies is beginning to be heard as it lobbies for more funding, Arsh said, but City Councilman Kevin Boyce urged more direct advocacy to offset the shortfall.

Keeping heads above water

With the funding gap, rate payers must shoulder more of the cost, but Columbus is trying to reach more of its low-income residents who might be in over their heads with the increases.

There are an estimated 21,000 residents who are eligible for at least a 15 percent discount on their water and sewer bills, reported Assistant Director Rick Tilton. But as of September of this year, only 2,900 were receiving the discount.

Those who would qualify include anyone receiving a Homestead tax exemption, Medicaid assistance or home heating aid.

In order to make more people aware of the program, applications will be included with bills mailed for the first quarter of 2008.

The application can also be downloaded from the city’s web site, and is available at 16 Columbus library branches, including the main branch, as well as at Neighborhood Pride Centers, senior centers, food banks, settlement houses and the 12 Head Start schools.

Information is also available by calling the city’s 3-1-1 help line.

A radio campaign of public service announcements about the discount began Nov. 5, and will be repeated for two weeks in December and January.

In late November, Spanish language announcements will be broadcast on a Hispanic radio station WXOL 1550, and brochures have been printed in Spanish and in large-print formats in English and Spanish.

Literature on the program is being distributed door-to-door in areas with subsidized housing. Landlords can also apply for indirect discounts for their tenants.

So far the radio campaign has yielded good results, Tilton said, with almost 200 calls received requesting information.

If the number of applications remains at its current level, the department could look at increasing the maximum discount available, Tilton added.

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