by Rick Langenberg:
Water is the king jewel in Cripple Creek and local residents have reaped plenty of financial benefits as a result of the city’s H20 riches. But with changing times and a need to generate more revenue, city officials are now considering a 33 percent average rate hike for most residents and a new system that favors conservation.
Still, elected leaders say locals are getting one heck of a deal and during a public meeting last week appeared supportive of the new potential increases, which could generate an additional $91,000 a year, brining its projected water revenue to $217,000. Moreover, the new rate structure would come with a much needed punch: If you waste water through faulty lines, old toilets, service line breaks, careless irrigation and the constant running of facets during the winter, you are going to pay the price. “Most people out there want to conserve,” said Mayor Bruce Brown, who believes that the majority of residents understand the current water realities and the prospects of a rate hike, during a public workshop on Jan. 2. “They know this is coming,” added the mayor. “We are artificially low,” stated Councilman Chris Hazlett. According to the Hazlett, even with the proposed rate hikes, Cripple Creek residents would still pay lower rates than comparable communities.
“We really shouldn’t hurt anyone, unless they are wasting water,” said Public Works Director Greg Severance, one of the main architects behind the plan. “The better we manage our water; we are all going to be better off.”
Last week, Severance and Water and Wastewater Director Jim Blasing unveiled details of a water rate study and the town’s movement towards a metered system and one that rewards good conservation practices. In essence, the city officials conceded that based on purely a financial management model, the town’s utility agencies wouldn’t be in business very long with the way rates and water revenues are currently handled. “We are getting 70 cents on the dollar,” admitted Blasing.
Residential rates are currently assessed at $15 a month regardless of usage. And while most residents are quite conscious of good conservation practices and probably only use 6,000 gallons a month, the officials cited some households that have exceeded the 180,000 gallon level per month. In certain cases, these residents aren’t aware of the high volume of water they are using, noted Blasing. As a result, the city is losing significant money and is abiding by a system that doesn’t reward conservation, suggested officials. Plus, the local casinos are being forced to make up the difference through their device fees due to a previous policy that eliminated capital improvement fees for residential water users.
Time for new hikes
That scenario, though, could soon change in the Creek. Officials are proposing that residential rates be assessed at $15 per month for the initial 8,000 gallons of usage, along with re-implementing a $5 water and wastewater capital improvement fee. Users that exceed this level would then pay $2.85 for each additional 1,000 gallons of water. Under this system, the average residential monthly water bill would be slated at $20 a month, while people who use 15,000 gallons a month would pay approximately $40. This is still well below the suggested standards, when the city embarked on a mandate to have a complete water metering system. The city currently has about 840 paying water customers.
Benefits of this proposed change are that the city could generate more revenue, find itself in a better position to sell its abundant level of H20 to nearby entities, such as the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company, and attract more grant dollars by having a system that rewards conservation. “You are very blessed with a lot of water rights,” said Severance. In fact, he believes the city may be in a position to sell as much as 734 acre feet of water a year, which is well beyond the capabilities of most small towns.
However, if the city continues to waste this resource through bad conservation practices, it won’t be able to retain any benefits. “Water is higher priced than gold,” said one resident at last week’s workshop.
The water rate plan was mostly received with a thumbs-up response. But business owner Tim Braun questioned if the proposed capital improvement fee would constitute a new tax. If that’s the case, then the issue would have to go before the voters. Officials, though, didn’t see this as a pressing hurdle, citing this fee as part of the overall plan to have a completely metered system.
Other concerns were raised by residents about selling too much water. They sought assurances that local interests would receive top priority. And Mayor Pro Tem Steve Zoellner, as a compromise, suggested that the city set 10,000 gallons rather than 8,000 as the initial threshold for the $15 per month rates. Severance, though, stressed that the 8,000 gallon level is quite reasonable. Finance Director Paul Harris stated that the city wants to take “baby steps” regarding probable rate increases. The city council will formerly address proposals for water rate hikes within the next month.