Town Council proposes 48% sewer rate hike
Town residents will have a chance to weigh in on a 48 percent sewer rate increase provisionally adopted by the Columbus Town Council during a public hearing to be held at the Town Hall on July 20.
As unanimously approved by the town council on June 15, the rate increase will go into effect for the September billing.
The proposed base rate increase will be from $17.50 per month to $26 for most residential properties. Columbus Town Clerk Ron Barndt said most residential properties won’t be affected by the proposed rate increase for usage beyond the 3,000 gallons per month included in the base rate.
Both rates would increase by about 48 percent. Barndt noted that the sewer rates “probably should have been increased a little bit at a time every year” instead of in one big jump.
According to Tom Erskine, a senior funds administrator for Interstate Engineering Inc. of Billings, the consultant that worked with the town on the proposed rate increase, Columbus hasn’t seen a sewer rate increase since 1999 when it took out a USDA Rural Development loan to build new sewage lagoons east of town.
“I actually worked on that loan for Columbus,” he said.
Erskine said the town is looking at borrowing $2,080,500 from the State Revolving Fund at 2.5 percent over 20 years. About $500,000 of that money would go to paying off the 1999 RD loan, which has a 4.5 percent interest rate.
“That would leave the town with just one loan at the lowest interest rates I’ve seen since I started this work,” Erskine said.
Most of the new loan would go to repairing aging sewer mains, including clay tile mains dating to the 1930s. Using reserve money that will be reimbursed by the SRF loan, town crews cleaned and inspected about 30,000 feet of sewer mains with TV cameras this spring to determine where the worst sections are located.
“A lot of the clay pipe is actually in pretty decent shape, so it can be slip-lined with plastic pipe instead of dug up and replaced,” Erskine said. “That will save the town money.”
Some sewer mains in town were slip-lined about eight years ago, Columbus Public Works Director Dennis Holten said.
“They’ve held up well,” he said. “Technology has really improved.”
Erskine said the town intends to repair as many sewer lines as possible until the loan money runs out.
About $130,000 to $150,000 of the loan would go to installing a pivot irrigation system on town-owned land east of the sewage lagoons to handle treated wastewater discharge beyond what is currently handled by an irrigation system at the town golf course. That additional treated wastewater is currently being discharged into the Yellowstone River, and the town is being proactive about stricter state regulations expected in 2017, Erskine said.
Revenue from the sewer rate increase would also be used to pay for the consolidated loan and to build up a sewer reserve account, which is “about nil now,” Erskine said.
Some of the sewer rate increase would also pay for increased operating costs, including meeting stricter state requirements, Holten said.
“The Montana Department of Environmental Quality wants four times as much sampling,” Holten said. “Lab costs are higher as they test for more things.”
The public hearing will be held in the Town Hall on Monday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m.