Money down the toilet? Belleville residents may see sewer rate increases

News-DemocratAugust 10, 2013 

— Residents may see higher sewer rates in coming years as the city of Belleville continues a more than $100 million sewer system overhaul and expansion to comply with federal environmental laws.

A public hearing about the project is at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Illinois St. and city officials are expected to release details about the plan.

Representatives from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will be there to explain what the city is required to do about combined sewer overflow and sanitary sewer overflow. They also will address the 100-plus years of combined sewers in Belleville.

City officials said they will explain the proposed sewer rate increases necessary to pay for the work to meet the federal mandates. They also will give a timeline and update of the project, which started in 2008.

In 2008, city officials estimated sewer rates would go up about 3.5 percent annually for an $88 million project. This meant that the average residents' sewer bill would go from $23 to $56 by 2023, the project's initial target end date, with inflation taken into account.

Since then, the EPA has required additional work and construction costs have gone up so the project's cost is now expected to be more than $100 million. And, the annual sewer rate increases likely will be higher and the project's end date will be later.

Belleville City Treasurer Dean Hardt said he is still crunching numbers and expects to provide residents with firm rate increases and the city's payment plan during Wednesday's meeting.

Any numbers city leaders discuss before the hearing are preliminary, Hardt said.

Hardt said the city hopes to get low-interest loans from the EPA to pay for sewer upgrades, but he's working to get the city to a position where revenue from residents and other sources are enough to support sewer plant operations.

Hardt urges residents to attend the hearing to get the "nuts and bolts" of why sewer rates will increase.

"This is a very involved topic with a lot of intricacies that can only be disseminated at this meeting," Hardt said. "If you want to know everything about the rate increase, then you truly need to attend the Aug. 14 meeting."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that Belleville needs to eliminate combined sewer overflow, which is dumping sewage mixed with water into creeks. The city is building infrastructure to route the discharge back to the plant for treatment.

As part of the long-term control plan, the city also is expanding its sewer plant by 4.4 million gallons to handle 12.4 million gallons for future city growth. The first phase of the three-phase project is almost complete.

The last time the city increased sewer rates was May 1, 2010. Rates went up 3.5 percent each year from 2008 to 2010. Before that, rates were going up about 5 percent annually.

In 2008, the sewer rate for using four to 16 units was $3.14 per unit; in 2009, it was $3.25; and in 2010, it became $3.36.

Residents' sewer bills are determined by their water usage, which is measured in units.

Most residential properties fall into the four to 16 unit range of usage. A household of four is likely in this range and its estimated average monthly bill for the sewer portion of the bill would be about $28 under current rates.

"I don't want to raise the rates any more than I have to," Hardt said. "We appreciate and understand the impact this has on residents. We don't want to create a significant hardship to meet our obligations."

Hardt said the city should increase the rates every year, but the city did not the past three years because of the economic downturn.

Hardt, elected in April, is serving his first term as treasurer.

"Upon coming into the office, this is one of the first priorities I had to address."

During a Master Sewer Committee meeting earlier this month, employees in the city's Wastewater Department told aldermen the increases needed to be implemented as soon as possible so the city could stay on track with the sewer improvements. And, more delays mean higher project costs.

Aldermen discussed ways to inform residents of the EPA mandates and sewer rate increases.

"The residents only care, I'm flushing my toilet and it's costing me twice as much? That's the bottom line for them," Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said.

In addition to Wednesday's hearing, aldermen plan to have multiple public meetings with residents before the proposed increases go before the full City Council for a vote in October.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said residents need to know that this is not a situation where the city is "taxing just to be taxing."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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