ROGERS CITY - After weeks of discussion and some controversy, Rogers City has adopted a new fee schedule for its water and sewer customers.
City council members voted 4-1 at a special meeting on Aug. 27 to raise base rates incrementally over five years, Mayor Beach Hall said. The fee hikes are needed to cover operational costs for city sewer and water systems, and to meet state and federal cash reserve requirements. The city also has to pay back more than $6 million in loans from the United States Department of Agriculture that paid for renovations for both systems.
"We have to pay our bills, and this is the only way we can do it," he said. "To do nothing would simply dig a big hole for the future, which is occurring in some communities."
Water customers will be charged a higher rate based on the size of their water meter, City Manager Mark Slown said. Those with larger meters and service lines coming to their home or business have a higher capacity for water use. The city has to match that capacity with its own infrastructure, multiplied by the number of users along a stretch of water main.
"It really doesn't have anything to do with the fact that they're using a lot of water or not," he said. "If the customer has the need to have the capacity, even though they may not be using water, we have to have the system to support it."
The city's water and sewer system is expensive to operate and maintain, and neglecting the upkeep now would lead to larger bills in the future, Slown said. These base rate increases will give the city more money to make needed repairs, plus cover increasing operating costs.
Starting this month, water and sewer customers will pay higher combined base rates, eventually increasing to $16.26 for apartments, $45.75 for most water customers and $164.68 for the largest meter size of four inches, according to the new rate schedule.
Previously, nearly every water and sewer customer paid the same combined base rate of $39.75, Slown said. By doing this, residential customers essentially were subsidizing customers with larger water meters. Phasing in the new base rates gives customers more time to budget for the increase.
"At the end of five years, they will be paying a fee appropriate to their meter size, whereas now they're only paying" one-fifth of the amount needed to reach the new rates, he said.
Previously proposed increases were considerably higher than those adopted by city council in August, and were to take effect immediately rather than be phased in. Several customers were unhappy, and Rogers City Housing Commission Executive Director Sally Goupell said the new fees would be devastating to Hilltop Manor. The subsidized housing development can't pass the increases on to its tenants, and the previously proposed fees would've increased its bills by $1,600 per month.
City council members weren't happy either, so they voted to rescind the previously recommended rates and worked with a consultant from the Michigan Rural Water Association to come up with a new plan, Hall said. After two workshops and a special meeting, city council formed a plan that only council member Gary Nowak opposed.
"It's not an easy subject, it never has been," Hall said. "We've had debates on this almost every year I've been mayor."
The new rates will still have an impact on Hilltop Manor, and the city is looking into how it can help the housing development deal with the cost, Slown said. One way would be to give the development a break on an annual fee it pays instead of property taxes.