By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor
The Town of Gilbert is considering raising utility rates for residents and businesses for the first time since 2009 in order to offset increasing energy costs and deal with water quality issues.
“We have seen a 20 percent increase in energy rates since the last time we changed our rates,” Water Resources Manager Eric Braun said. “It takes a lot of energy to treat water, to pump it, to deliver it and then to pump that wastewater back to the plant and to treat it again.”
Braun also said the cost of the raw water the town receives has gone up an average of 6.7 percent annually over the past 17 years.
“We haven’t changed the rates since 2009. Obviously if you’ve gone to the grocery store, you know that the costs of goods have changed over that time,” Management and Budget Director Kelly Pfost said.
The increased rates also will help the town pay for new infrastructure needed to deal with the decreasing quality of the raw water the town receives.
“The incoming water quality to our water-treatment plant has changed significantly over the past 15 years and that is due to catastrophic fires in the watershed,” Braun said.
He added that there is “a lot of silt, ash and new chemicals coming in on the water side, so the old methods of treating water don’t deal with it at this increased concentration.”
The town already has implemented some changes in its distribution system to deal with quality issues, and Pfost said increased revenue will be required to fund capital improvements over the next five years.
“Residents hopefully won’t see a change because (water) is treated to the appropriate levels now,” she said. “The goal is that they never see a change, that although the water coming to us is decreasing in quality, we maintain that same (appropriate) quality.”
Pfost said the town has regularly looked at ways to increase efficiencies in order to avoid raising rates.
Those efficiencies include the recent installation of new energy-efficient water pumps that save the town approximately $500,000 per year.
“That is a 20 percent decrease in energy costs in distribution alone on the water side,” Braun said.
The town has also changed the way it services fire hydrants and now uses town staff to perform maintenance on hydrants instead of a contractor.
That change, along with associated contract renegotiations, has allowed the town to save roughly $600 on repair and maintenance per hydrant per year on Gilbert’s over 10,000 fire hydrants, Braun said.
Despite those efficiencies, the town still needed to raise water rates to offset increasing costs.
For residential and business customers, the base water rate for a three-quarter-inch meter would increase from $14.63 per month to $16.30 per month. Larger meter sizes will see similar increases and all proposed changes are available at gilbertaz.gov/departments/finance-mgmt-services/utilities/rates/proposed-utility-rates/proposed-rate-adjustments.
The volume rate for water customers will also change. For customers using 0 to 8,000 gallons per month, the price would increase from $1.08 to $1.20 per 1,000 gallons.
Customers using 8,000 to 20,000 gallons per month would see prices go from $1.14 to $1.28 per 1,000 gallons. Users with higher quantities will also see increases, and those rates are available on the town’s website.
Pfost said that Gilbert’s utility funds are self-sufficient and do not generate profits that are then redirected to the general fund to fund other operations.
Gilbert also is considering changing the way it bills customers for sewer service, though that change could end up saving some residents on their monthly bill.
The town currently is using a model in which each customer’s fee is calculated based on a complicated system that looks at water use during the winter months and takes a percentage of that to determine the sewer fee.
“That (system) made sense maybe 20 years ago, but now we are finding that some users were paying more than their fair share and some were paying a lot less than their fair share,” Braun said.
The town has proposed switching to a flat fee of $24.73 for all residential customers.
Pfost said that winter average system is really designed to work in areas with a traditional winter, because it operates under the assumption that winter water usage does not include water used for landscaping and is an accurate representation of overall sewer use.
“We saw that households that have a lot of landscaping and were doing it throughout the year were paying an elevated sewer service,” she said.
For commercial customers, Gilbert is considering instituting a new sewer base rate of $16.64 and decreasing the volume rate from $1.99 to $1.64 per 1,000 gallons.
Gilbert is proposing lowering its trash rates for residential customers from $16 per month for a 90-gallon container to $14.80. The rate for a 65-gallon container would go from $14.80 to $13.60.
That decrease is the result of a new proposed $4.28 environmental compliance fee.
That fee – which pays for air quality and water compliance operations like street sweeping and storm water inspections – is currently built into the residential trash pickup fees. The new fee would apply to all residential and business customers.
“The business community is also benefiting from the environmental compliance operations,” Pfost said, adding:
. “So we said, ‘Let’s break that out to a separate fund and have everyone pay for that and have residential trash just pay for the cost to do that.’”
The town will hold public customer workshops to address questions and concerns from residents and businesses.
The workshops will take place on Aug. 7 at Power Ranch Barn, 3685 E. Autumn Dr. and August 20 at the University Building, 92 W. Vaughn Ave. The workshops for non-residential customers take place from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. followed by workshops for residential customers from 6-7:30 p.m.
The town also created a utility bill calculator at general.gilbertaz.gov/billcalc where residents can find out how the proposed changes would affect their individual bill.
The town will hold a public hearing Sept. 20 and the Town Council could adopt the changes on the same day. If the council approves of the changes, the new rates will go into affect Nov. 1