Belleville leaders propose 3 ways to pay for $127.3 million sewer upgrades

News-DemocratAugust 14, 2013 

— City officials presented three sewer rate increase proposals at a public hearing Wednesday, all of which would about double residents' sewer bills in 10 years, to pay for $127.3 million of federally required upgrades.

Belleville leaders did not vote on a proposal and will continue to discuss these options in the next month.

Residents should expect a decision soon after because the city needs to have a rate structure in place to get 20-year fixed, low-interest loans from the Environmental Protection Agency to pay for the mandated projects.

The sewer system expansion and overhaul is needed to prevent sewage backup into basements and prevent pumping waste into area creeks when the city gets heavy rain.

City Treasurer Dean Hardt and Mayor Mark Eckert said after the meeting that the best option for the city would be sewer rate increases that garner enough to pay for current required projects, plan for future work and build the city's reserves.

The city did not raise sewer rates for the past three years because of the downturn in the economy. Hardt said he's recommending the option where residents will see gradual increases over the next 33 years instead of seeing another substantial jump down the line.

During the hearing, Eckert said the city has been working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for about two decades to explore ways to separate the city's combined waste and storm sewers.

Eckert said there are challenges to upgrading the sewer system of a city that spans 10 miles long and will be 200 years old next year.

About 40 attendees, about half of which were elected officials and city staff, were at City Hall to hear presentations from EPA representatives and city staff about why the increases are needed and how the city plans to pay for the work.

The city plans to hold more informational meetings to educate residents about the changes.

Here are the three proposals outlined at the hearing:

* If the city raises rates just to pay for current projects, residents would pay an 8 percent increase annually until 2022, pay an additional 6 percent more annually for five years thereafter and then see an increase of 1 percent each year following. This is the minimum increase proposed.

In this scenario, an average household of four using seven units of water would see its estimated monthly bill, for the sewer portion of the bill, go from $27.20 this year to $67.48 in 2025;

* If the city builds up funds but doesn't plan for future sewer work, residents would see an 8 percent increase annually until 2025;

With this proposal, the same household of four would see the sewer part of the bill go up to $74.14 in 2025 and stay about the same;

* If the city builds up funds and reserves for future work, residents would foot an 8 percent increase annually until 2026 and then pay a 1 percent increase annually until 2046. This is the highest increase proposed.

With this proposal, the same household of four would see the sewer part of the bill go up to $74.14 in 2025 and continue to rise.

The increases are more than the $88 million projected in 2008 because the EPA now requires more work and construction costs have increased.

In 2008, the city approved a Long Term Control Plan to expand the sewer plant by 4.4 million gallons to handle 12.4 million gallons for future city growth. The plan consists of eight projects expected to be done by 2023.

Royce Carlisle, director of the Wastewater Division and Sewer Lines, said Wednesday that the city hopes to complete the first phase of the Long Term Control Plan by the end of this year.

The EPA has said that Belleville needs to eliminate combined sewer overflow, which is dumping sewage mixed with water into creeks. The city has to build infrastructure to route the discharge back to the plant for treatment.

This spring, the EPA cited the city for sanitary sewer overflow issues after residents in the Sherman and Lucinda streets area had sewer backup into their basement when pumps failed during heavy rain.

Marsha Wilhite, a representative with the IEPA, commended the city for the work it has done so far and said the city is proceeding at a good pace.

According to the IEPA, every city in the state with a combined sewer system has a long-term plan to bring those systems into compliance through upgrades. Alton faces similar issues as Belleville.

And, the IEPA said the costs Belleville are proposing are in line with what other cities charge their residents to do so.

Though the city has installed new sewer lines in some neighborhoods, there are still some backups. Belleville resident Kathy Draper asked how the city will address that problem.

Eckert replied that the city wants to know where issues are and asked that residents report any issues. He also advised Draper that backups will still occur as work is being done on other parts of the system.

When city leaders approved the plan, officials estimated sewer rates would go up about 3.5 percent annually for residents.

The last time the city increased sewer rates was May 1, 2010. Rates went up 3.5 percent each year from 2008 to 2010.

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

Before that, rates were going up about 5 percent annually.

Over time, the city has seen sewer revenue drop as fewer new homes were built in Belleville. There were 2,491 homes built in 1999. Last year, only 73 were built, which impacts overall revenue.

Reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf contributed information to this article. Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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