Will Alpena officials seriously consider a request by municipal council to review other options that could reduce the impact of their proposed water rate hikes to users of the system?
I hope so.
First, let me compliment council, especially Councilmen Mike Nowak and Shawn Sexton, for taking the initiative to request more study. Council's vote was unanimous to do so, and I believe council was correct to direct city staff to investigate again the issue.
By now all of us are growing tired of reading stories dealing with Alpena's water issues but until the matter is resolved, it impacts all of us. None of us are immune.
Thus, if the city manager and engineer really were listening to residents over the past several weeks as council evidently has been doing, I believe they would strongly consider some key changes to the current proposed increase.
First, and most important, they would have council approve a three-year rate hike for water and sewer rates. The current proposal would be cut in half, with the first half hike implemented this summer, the second half next summer and a similar size hike in the summer of 2016 for future needs.
Second, and almost just as important, they would return to the quarterly billing structure and eliminate the proposed $2.92 water billing charge and the $2.92 sewer billing charge each month. In essence, the $5.84 new billing charge each month is pretty much a hidden fee. It will cost residents $70.08 each year just for the "convenience" of paying monthly. Looking at the 4,727 Alpena city customers with a one-inch of less line (mostly residential), the new fee would generate $331,268 annually.
If city officials want to offer monthly billing, then do so. If customers think that more convenient, they could then "opt into" that service, and thus pay the extra $5.84 a month for that "convenience." The rest of us, however, could still do as we always have and just pay quarterly.
Third, council needs to establish an advisory citizen committee made up of city and Alpena Township residents, officials and business leaders to address the animosity and friction that has been created over the water issue. In many ways this has caused an erosion of trust between the two entities and that trust has to be restored quickly for our region to progress together.
Fourth, council and township officials should right now bring in a mediator to begin addressing their differences over the rate structure. In my opinion too much has been said between both groups for this to head in any direction other than the courtroom. Because time is of the essence and because the ultimate decision will have a serious financial consequence to whichever entity would win, the sooner the issue can be worked out, the better. Both governments need to know from budget perspectives exactly where they stand with water rates.
The city was told from its residents Monday that a rate hike was OK, but not the amount the city was proposing. They were told a phased-in approach would be financially more prudent.
I hope that message was heard loud and clear.