August 7, 2008

Ness Proposes New Way to Charge for Water Use

By Brandon Stahl, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn.

Aug. 7--Duluth Mayor Don Ness' administration is proposing an ordinance that would cut the "sprinkling allowance," which would save the city money while promoting water conservation. But it also would increase sanitary sewer fees -- with two city councilors claiming it could triple or quadruple them.

The allowance was created by the city several years ago as a way to determine how much to charge residents for sanitary sewer costs in the summer. The city bases those charges on the amount of water consumers use during the winter, with the assumption that the extra water in the summer is used for activities such as washing cars, gardening or sprinkling lawns, and not going into the sanitary sewer system for treatment.

The city is asking the council to waive the sprinkler allowance, which Ness calls a discount to residents, and is proposing to base residents' sanitary sewer bills on the full amount of water used in the summer months.

The reason, he said, is that the city has no way to track actual use of sanitary sewer treatment and might not be adequately recouping its costs.

"We need a true reflection of the costs to the public in providing those services," he said.

Another issue is water conservation, he said.

"We in Duluth need to take our responsibility of conservation of our fresh-water resource very seriously," Ness said. "By having a policy in which we're essentially subsidizing sprinkling of lawns, it's not a policy that encourages conservation."

Others say the proposed change is wrong, noting that the change would substantially add to what already are among the highest sanitary sewer fees in the Upper Midwest.

Councilor Jim Stauber said he uses about four times the water in the summer as in the winter, but he said that water doesn't go into the sanitary system for treatment; it evaporates or goes into the storm water system. The sanitary sewer charges on his monthly bill, he said, would quadruple in the summer to about a $100 a month.

"You're essentially charging people for services they don't receive," he said. "People like me should be up in arms."

Councilor Todd Fedora agrees.

"This ordinance is ludicrous, and I think the administration is out of control in terms of dinging people for fees and higher rates," he said, noting a since-pulled proposal to charge for certain fire and police services, as well as a current proposal to charge home sellers $200 for sump pump inspections. "I understand the mayor's intent to get us out of this financial conundrum, but to continually go back to families and taxpayers is not the right answer."

Nick Petrangelo, the city's customer service manager in the Public Works Department, said his department doesn't have figures on how much the city will gain financially from wiping out the sprinkler allowance.

Ness said the savings would go to the utility fund and not the general fund, which has a $4.4 million deficit in 2008.

"There's room for discussion about how the fees are charged, and a true reflection of the costs to the public in providing those services," Ness said. "You can go round and round with those arguments, but at a fundamental level, this policy change is about trying to simplify the city's administration of this program and encourage conservation."

Does Duluth need to save water? Kent Lokkesmoe, the director of divisional waters for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said there's no potential for a water shortage, thanks to Lake Superior. But as for conservation, he said, "we would encourage conservation anywhere."

BRANDON STAHL covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at [email protected]


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