Councilors said they want to review how Westminster’s water infrastructure works, how much it costs and how those costs are paid before they’ll consider raising rates for 2021 and 2022.
The city’s utility department staff asked councilors what they wanted to know about the water and sewer infrastructure prior to beginning budget discussions later this year during the council’s Jan. 6 study session.
“Primarily, we are in listening mode today,” Westminster Public Works Director Max Kirschbaum said. “We want to hear what’s on your mind.”
Councilors, especially those that ran for office in 2019, had plenty of questions.
“This is about the process as much as anything else,” said Councilor Rich Seymour, one of two new councilors elected in November. Seymour said he wants to know what kinds of rate increases the city is considering up front.
“Having sat up in the rows two years ago when this was rolled out, I believe that the council would have had a different thought pattern through those presentations if they had been told ‘Here is the rate we are going to ask for’,” Seymour said. “I understand that building the process and building people up to that stage is important but the engagement would have been very different.”
Westminster’s 2020 water residential water rates increased roughly 10 percent per 1,000 gallons with the new year while commercial rates increased between 6 and 10 percent depending on how much is used.
Kirschbaum said the city’s uses it’s own calculation to determine how potential budgets for future projects. That calculation, called a Utility Condition rating Index, considers how much repairing or replacing the city’s $4 billion water and sewer infrastructure will cost, rather than just budgeting for repairs based on inflation.
“What are the needs of the system, versus what the Consumer Price Index says we should be spending,” Kirschbaum said. “We had that discussion in 2016 for the 2017-18 budget and between then and now we have matured that a little bit further.”
He said staff wanted to know questions councilors wanted answers to before staff began making budget recommendations.
For councilor Lindsey Smith, one of the two new councilors, constituents and councilors want to know what to expect.
“One of my questions is, was the 2019-20 rate increase just a rate to catch us up , or is there going to be another significant increase after that?” Smith said. “And what can we do to reduce rates.”
Councilor David DeMott said he wants an explanation for the rationale behind the city’s tiered water rate system.
Westminster charges its lowest rate for residential customers that use less than 6,000 gallons per month. That rate increased from $3,57 per 1,000 gallons in 2019 to $3.96 in 2020.
Residential customers that use between 6,001 and 20,000 gallons per month now pay $8.15 per 1,000 gallons — up from $7.35 in 2019. And customers that use more than 20,000 gallons per month pay the most, $12.88 per 1,000 gallons. That’s $1.26 increase from the 2019 rate of $11.26 per 1,000 gallons.
Westminster’s commercial water customers pay between $7.78 and $9.54 per 1,000 gallons depending on how much they use.
Other communities charge a flat rate. Broomfield, for example, charges $3.28 per 1,000 for all water customers, including homes and businesses.
“Do we have any idea what it would look like if we didn’t do a tiered rate system?” DeMott said. “Obviously, we’d have to split those costs up differently. I understand that we want to charge more for people who put more wear on the system, but part of it also conservancy — trying to get people to use less. But we hear people talk about not liking the tiered system. So I’d be curious to know what a flat-rate system would look like.”
Councilor Anita Seitz, re-elected in November’s election, said she water rate is one of the most basic and important services the city provides.
“It’s my understanding that we’ve really made it more transparent and responsible when it comes to rate increases by basing it on (the Utility Rating Index) and having a minimal list of projects we need to do,” Seitz said. “We have the responsibility of not allowing failures to occur.”
Seitz said both councilors need to know when Westminster’s growth in housing is driving the demand for water and when repairs are driving up costs.
“I think it’s important to talk about how much of our costs are related to maintenance and how much is related to growth,” Seitz said. “We can be honest and transparent about it, but we can talk about really is this due to growth or is due to repairing and maintaining an aging infrastructure — and we need to be clear when it’s a bit of both.”
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