November 14, 2013

Raising rates could be key to fixing water problem

Some city leaders express misgivings over possible political fallout

James Bright, Managing Editor,
Guest Columnist


Chickasha is facing a flood of problems when it comes to water. 

After a lengthy campaign over a capital improvements tax that inevitably resulted in the tax's renewal, the city is now tasked with a $150 million restructure of Chickasha's water system. 

Mayor Hank Ross has proposed a plan that would stretch this construction over the next 30 years, costing the city $5 million a year. This process would leave Chickasha with new pipe lines, and a revamped water treatment plant. The problem is funding. Even with the CIP renewal, the city is still over $3 million short year-to-year it would need to execute this plan. Now, the city council is on the search for funds, and Tuesday night during a workshop session they broached the topic of raising the water rate in Chickasha. 

"I said all along that if the CIP passes, it will not take care of the whole problem," said Ross. "We are putting a significant investment in our water system from this tax and we need to find the funds to fix it quicker." 

The current fiscal year budget for the next five years calls for a five percent increase in water rates each year. Ross and City Manager Stuart Fairburn agree, this isn't enough and only allows the city to maintain the service as is. 

"We are 40 percent lower in water rates than other cities," said Fairburn. "It will take a combination of CIP, tax rates and bonds to get anything done. We are trying to make up for years and years of things not being done right."

Ross proposed a 20 percent increase in water rates over the next two years, which was met with disdain from multiple council members. Ross said a 20 percent increase equates to a $5 more a month expense for the average resident. 

"We have people living on $720 a month and for them, an additional $5 a month is a lot," said Council Member Phylis Steelman. 

Ross said it is imperative Chickasha's citizens know how much this process will cost, and that today's tax payers may have to foot the bill for the mistakes of past councils. 

"We went 23 years without any rate increases, which led to $75 millions in subsidies," said Ross. "This was not the fiscally responsible thing to do." 

Few will dispute water is a problem in Chickasha, and it falls to the city manager's officer to come up with a reasonable way to implement the fix financially. 

"We are at the point where we know it takes $150 million to fix this problem. The key is figuring out over what time frame to spend that money," said Fairburn. 

Past councils have avoided this problem, and the only way to make real progress is to start the process, said Fairburn. 

"We are not at a point where we can pin this down and say the people on 29th Street will have their pipes fixed in 2019. We are just not in that stage," he said. "We need to start talking about narrowing down the focus, and look at what we can do over the next 10 years."

Fairburn said money generated from the CIP tax is also used to maintain the system and for other capital infrastructure. The key is finding a balance allowing the city to improve water infrastructure while preventing failures in other areas. 

"At this point I am trying to prioritize what needs to be done first," he said. "We need to discuss what it will take to get this done overall, but planning for the next 30 years is difficult." 

Other representatives questioned whether raising the water rate and working on water infrastructure accurately represented the people's interests. 

"We've been put in office to represent constituents. Are we doing the job we've been elected to do?" asked Council Member Mike Sutterfield. 

Different increments including 5 percent and 8 percent increases over various time frames were also looked at by the council, but Ross maintained it would take at least 20 percent to work with his plan. 

"The people have told us this (fixing the water problems) is what they want," said Ross. "We are talking a big percentage, but not a lot of money. I know politically it's not the right thing to do, but it's the fiscally responsible thing to do."

Sutterfield maintained such a substantial increase may not accurately represent the will of the people. He said those who campaigned against the renewal of the CIP tax and for improving the water were a small group, and may not have adequately represented Chickasha's citizens. 

Ross contended he promised citizens that he would fix this issue, and he does not think 10 percent will do it. 

"Ten percent won't get us there in our lifetime," Council Member Howard Carpenter said. 

Fairburn said he is in the process of preparing a breakdown of costs at different rates and what the city will need to do to reach the $150 million goal, but for the moment, the magic number seems lost in the depths of a choppy financial ocean.