Local sewer rates will likely go up next year and there's not much time for the public to weigh in
Utility rates for the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) could go up for the first time in eight years.
Hamilton County commissioners are considering next year’s MSD budget with a 3% rate increase.
MSD Director Diana Christy says the increase is needed just to maintain current service levels.
"Our chemical costs alone are over a million dollars greater than they were a year ago," Christy told commissioners last week. "Natural gas increases [are] just under a million dollars. That plus our disposal costs for our solids disposal — all three of those categories are the main driver for an increase in our non-personnel budget."
The operating budget proposal also includes a 4% salary increase for represented personnel.
The current budget draft would require an even bigger rate increase; Assistant County Administrator Holly Christmann says they're working with MSD officials to cut an additional $4 million from the proposed operating budget in order to make the 3% rate increase feasible.
Christy says they're about halfway to that goal.
"Finding another $2 million is really — we're not there yet. We're working on it," Christy said Thursday. "We hope to be able to get there ... without creating, you know, any kind of immediate impact."
The 3% increase would apply to all four charges:
- Minimum base charge
- Commodity charge (based on water usage)
- Surcharge (for commercial and industrial customers only)
- Pretreatment charge (for industrial customers only)
The increase would cost the average household an extra $18 a year.
Commissioners say they weren't briefed on the proposed rate increase until last Thursday, leaving very little time to get public input.
"How can MSD forget about the possibility of a 7.25% rate increase? How did that not come up? How was that not included in their information?" Commission President Stephanie Summerow Dumas said Tuesday. "We're trusting that the information that comes in is true, is real, is adequate."
MSD sent the first draft of an annual rate study to county administration Oct. 10, with several other drafts sent back and forth since then.
"I just want to be clear, we've given that information," Christy said last week. "And it was our understanding that those discussions would continue, it's just that we didn't have the feedback."
A county spokesperson says MSD has historically provided a rate resolution, which is an actual recommendation on what rates should be for the next calendar year. MSD did not provide a rate resolution last year or this year.
"MSD did not submit a rate resolution to the county this year because the county never provided MSD with the financial assumptions needed to determine what the rate increase should be," Christy said in an emailed statement.
That includes the county's desired debt service coverage, need for new revenue bonds, and a five-year Capital Improvement Plan based on the county's affordability analysis.
Christy laid out a timeline of emails and meetings between MSD and county administration over the last two months. In an email sent Nov. 30, Christy said, "I do not intend to cover the Rate Study in the public hearing presentation tomorrow. We remain open and willing to meet with the Board on this matter before the next hearing. We can discuss the steps to notice this for a public hearing too, and when, if desired."
Officials for both the county and MSD say they're now pursuing a proposed 3% rate increase for 2023; that would require a reduction in MSD's proposed budget.
Commission Vice President Alicia Reece says public input is important, but she's already opposed to a rate increase.
"I'm just looking at a January that's getting ready to just demolish the taxpayers," Reece said. "I mean, homeowners can't get a break; they've got their property taxes due in January. Now we come back and a rate increase on your MSD bill will be there."
Commissioner Denise Driehaus says she understands the need for a rate increase, but shares the frustration at the lack of communication.
"We had a large amount in the bank in the past few years and so we have not had to do a rate increase," Driehaus said. "Because we were spending down that balance to a place where we felt it was reasonable to have enough in there to protect us, and yet not so much that we were just sitting on ratepayer money."
The budget needs to be approved in December. County Administrator Jeff Aluotto says he’s looking into the possibility of passing a temporary continuation budget so the rate issue can be decided early next year.
Aluotto says that could cause additional problems, however.
"Say you need a 3% rate increase — if you're doing a continuation budget through the first quarter, then ultimately you have to raise rates slightly higher than that to get what you ultimately wanted for the year," Aluotto said.
The last regular commission meeting on the calendar is Dec. 15, with a staff meeting also scheduled for Dec. 20. The board could choose to add another meeting before the end of December to pass a full budget on time, while still allowing for more public input.
A public hearing for the MSD budget was already scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 8 at the commissioners' regular meeting. Another public meeting has been set for Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. at the County Administration Building.