Due to stricter regulations at the state and federal level, the city of Newton is facing a $23 million wastewater treatment plant upgrade and will have to raise wastewater utility rates to fund the project.
At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved a flat fee that will be added to residents' utility bills.
City Manager Randy Riggs said when federal and state governments impose regulations or programs, they may not think about how the cost will hurt local governments.
“The strategy is to make (us) take the heat for their decisions,” Riggs said. "We’ve been in meetings where we have said, this is very expensive and does not make sense for the citizens in the communities of Kansas. ... The comments we received from government levels higher than us is, ‘We think you can afford it. You can take care of it.’ ... Here we are, paying for a variety of factors and forces beyond us. We are at the bottom of the food chain.”
Jerry McKenzie, a consultant with MGT of America, recommended the city adopt a flat fee of $17.75 per month for residential users, and $51.44 for commercial, institutional and industrial users. He suggested a flat fee, rather than one based on consumption, due to the fluctuation in water usage that can be caused by weather. If the city has to make loan payments on the wastewater treatment plant upgrades, they will need to have a stable flow of funding.
McKenzie said many other communities across the country are being forced to raise their utility rates also; for those who haven't increased their rates yet, it likely will only be a matter of time. He reported the primary factors driving rate increases are environmental issues.
"I don’t think anyone will argue with the fact that we need to do these things from an environmental standpoint," he said. "But what is often overlooked is the cost associated with that.”
Mayor Jim Nickel said the city of Nickerson is facing a similar problem; they may have to increase their tax rate by 12 mills to pay for a treatment plant upgrade. Commissioners said they were concerned about how the new fees would impact residents and businesses in Newton but did not think there was a way to avoid the upgrade. Commissioner Racquel Thiesen said the cost of doing nothing could be fines of $10,000 a day for not meeting requirements.
“The state tells us what we have to do, what requirements we have to meet,” said Suzanne Loomis, city engineer/director of public works. “The requirements that are coming from the EPA, at the federal level, are getting higher and higher.”
“The people that are going to be paying for it are our neighbors down the street," Riggs added.