Equal parts communication seminar and a primer on public works, the Westminster City Council kicked off a series of meetings detailing how water rates are set. During the two-hour Zoom video …
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Equal parts communication seminar and a primer on public works, the Westminster City Council kicked off a series of meetings detailing how water rates are set.
During the two-hour Zoom video conference Oct. 8, consultant Heather Bergman with Peak Facilitation Group coached City Councilors on being less formal and more open to communicating, urging them to use first names when referring to each other. Councilors next discussed how to involve Westminster residents in the water rate discussions before beginning a review of the city’s water and sewer system.
The water rate-specific meetings are scheduled to continue at least through November — although most councilors said they favored a longer process with more public involvement that could continue the process beyond April 2021.
The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20, with meetings currently set for Nov. 5 and 17. The meetings are all set to run from 6-8 p.m. and are all currently planned to be virtual meetings, modeled after the City Council’s regular study session meetings. The meetings are designed to provide councilors and residents common information about the city’s water and sewer utilities before discussing potential water rate increases in 2022.
Councilors voted in 2018 to increase residential water rates for 2020 by roughly 10%, while commercial rates increased between 6% and 10%. Staff told councilors those increases were needed to pay for repairs and maintain the city’s aging system of water pipes, storage tanks and mains.
Councilors were scheduled to consider a similar increase for 2021 earlier this year. That potential increase was postponed due to concerns about the economic impact of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders.
The 2020 increase has spawned controversy, with a group of protesters filling Westminster City Hall’s parking lot during several meetings this summer. It’s culminated in the group, calling itself Westminster Water Warriors, aimed at Mayor Herb Atchison and Councilors Anita Seitz, Kathryn Skulley and Jon Voelz.
Atchison, Seitz and Skulley were on the council when the rate increase was approved.
Since the meetings are all currently planned to be hosted virtually on computers via video conferencing platforms, public input is limited. Bergman outline three options for finding out residents’ opinions. The first offered minimal input and had councilors settling on a recommendation that could be offered to residents.
A second, more involved process would have councilors selecting several water rate options that would be put to the public, with the most popular option being adopted. Both scenarios would fit the current schedule, with councilors wrapping up the work by year’s end or early in 2021.
A third option that would push the discussion into the spring of 2021 proved most popular with most councilors.
”Instead of waiting to the end, when you all have hopefully converged on some number of things, we could go to the community soon-ish,” Bergman said. “And instead of asking them what they think of one final thought, we ask questions about issues, items or topics that inform or impact rates. For example, what is their willingness to pay for something or what is their comfort with this kind of debt ratio, this level of potential problems or whatever.”
It would mean more water rate study sessions and several opportunities for public input, adding weeks and months to the process. Councilors would use those opinions to shape the policy going forward.
“So you would have more information, it would take more work for the community and it would take a little bit longer, just to collate the information and give folks time to think about multiple things, rather than one thing,” Bergman said. ”That third option is the most, highest form of engagement we would consider and it might feel more meaningful to members of the community. It is a higher level of involvement and would require more work on their part.”
Public input could come from meetings — virtual or otherwise — focus group discussions or surveys.
“We could ask, ‘Here are a potential number of things that could influence the amount of water rates, which of these things are important to you and which are not,” Bergman said. “We’re not asking them what you should do, but we can ask what’s important to them, what do they value.”
Most councilors said that was their choice.
“The most engagement we could have with our community is important, right.” Councilor Lindsey Smith said. ”So option three, obviously.”
She and Councilors David DeMott agreed that they favored a slow process.
“I don’t fee that we need to rush into making quick decisions, but should take our time gaining our community’s feedback,” she said.
Councilor Voelz said he favored three as well. Councilor Anita Seitz said she liked the third option too, but cautioned that councilors needed to be ready to listen.
“I cannot emphasize enough how much I want this to be real, meaningful and that we are listening and not promising more than we can deliver,” Seitz said.
There are things that must be done, but the city only has so much money.
“I just don’t want us to over-promise, in either direction,” Seitz said.
Bergman said her team would come back with a written proposal that would spell out how the engagement process would take.
Water utility primer
Bergman next urged councilors to keep an open mind, considering multiple options rather than simple yes-or-no answers and reminded them that public policy decisions are rarely unanimously popular with residents.
“It requires trade-offs: We can’t do all the things,” she said. “Fundamentally, if we do X, we can’t do Y. More often, it’s ‘If we do X right now, we have to do Y later.’ This what you are talking about when you say that there’s not enough money to do all the things.”
Next, Utilities Engineering Manager Julie Koehler explained the city’s new smart meters before beginning a discussion about how the city monitors the condition of its water and sewer utility system. Koehler said the city is spending $14 million to replace 30,000 meters. The city’s old meters were obsolete and at the end of their useful life. The new meters connect to cell phone towers to report customer use, and she said the city plans to install an internet dashboard next year that will let users monitor their use.
“These meters have a lot of technological advances that the others don’t,” she said..”Some of it’s in place now. Staff can see it, and that’s how we are able to talk with our ratepayers about their use. But soon, they’ll be able to use it on their own.”
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