Esky finalizes utility hike in split vote
ESCANABA — The Escanaba City Council approved utility rate ordinances for the city’s 2020-21 fiscal year, including significant water and wastewater rate increases, on second reading after public hearings were held in a special meeting Monday.
Under the Escanaba City Charter, council is required to pass electric, wastewater, water and solid waste utility rate ordinances for the upcoming fiscal year on the first Monday of June each year. The city’s 2020-21 fiscal year will start on July 1.
With the approval of these ordinances Monday, the net cost for wastewater service per 1,000 gallons rose by 35 percent to $5.32. Water rates rose by 35 percent to a net cost of $5.60 per 1,000 gallons.
The wastewater utility rate increase was substantially higher than had been predicted in a multi-year plan approved in 2019. In June of that year, council approved what was to be the first of three annual 20 percent increases to wastewater rates. The increases were meant to fund improvements to Escanaba’s wastewater plant and sewer system with the aim of reducing the amount of partially-treated sewage being released into Lake Michigan, among other things.
As bids for work at the wastewater plant came in higher than expected, the wastewater rate increase for 2020-21 was adjusted to 35 percent. Council Member Tyler DuBord mentioned the possibility of spreading the increase across the upcoming fiscal year and the fiscal year after that to mitigate its impact.
“If we don’t have to hit the citizens right now with 35 (percent), adjust that and then look at next year at adjusting,” he said.
However, Mayor Pro Tem Peggy O’Connell said this could cause issues related to compounding.
“If we wait another year and then the increase is made on a different number, it changes all the numbers. If you have a lower amount this year and then you do a percentage increase next year, it’s a lower number because the increase wasn’t done this year,” she said.
She also noted the city’s wastewater and water rates were the lowest in the Upper Peninsula before the increase, and are still slightly below average.
Ultimately, DuBord voted against the wastewater utility rate ordinance while Mayor Marc Tall, O’Connell, Council Member Ralph Blasier and Council Member Karen Moore voted for it.
The increase included in the water utility rate ordinance was in keeping with planned increases approved by council in 2019. The city’s water utility rate is being increased primarily due to the fact that about 80 percent of all water lines in Escanaba — more than 4,500 lines in all — will need to be replaced in the next two decades. Under a mandate from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, all waterlines that are or were formerly downstream of lead are considered contaminated whether or not lead can be found in water from these lines in high concentrations.
To meet the replacement schedule, the city is aiming to replace 200 lines per year, starting in 2020.
“It’s a mandate from the state, so we may as well get on top of it right now so we don’t have problems going on in the future,” Moore said.
On the other hand, Tall felt differently about the mandate.
“I don’t share in the belief that the water requirements — the requirements to replace the lead pipes — is going to be enforced in Michigan. I believe we have time, and I think this is too high at this point,” he said.
Tall and DuBord voted against the water utility rate ordinance, while O’Connell, Blasier, and Moore voted in favor of it.
An electric utility rate ordinance including a rate increase of 1.75 percent was approved during Monday’s meeting, as well. No rate increases were recommended in the solid waste utility rate ordinance; along with the electric rate ordinance, the solid waste utility rate ordinance was approved unanimously.