County residents who use city water could see their bills go down in the coming months, following a decision by Durango City Council on Tuesday.
A water and sewer rate increase effective in January had county residents and businesses paying double for water compared with the rates their city counterparts pay.
City residents saw their water bills increase from about $24 to about $33, if they used 7,000 gallons of water. In comparison, county residents saw their bills go up to about $66 from about $37 for the same amount of water.
After hearing from concerned citizens, the councilors decided to make the rate structure equal for all users during 2015 and revisit the issue while budgeting for 2016. County residents will get credit on their bills for what they paid over and above what a city resident would pay. However, it will not happen immediately.
It will take several City Council meetings before the ordinance will be officially revised, and that must happen before bills can reflect the change, Finance Director Julie Brown said.
Councilors made the change because they concluded they could not justify charging county water-users double without details on exactly how much more the city spends maintaining the infrastructure that serves county residents.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc suggested delaying a decision on rates until the next budget cycle.
“I don’t know if we can come up with information in two weeks or a month that will satisfy your decision not to be arbitrary,” he said.
The rate differential was put in place, in part, as an incentive for county property owners to apply to be annexed into the city and some people have recently started that process, he said.
However, concerns have been raised by people who live in enclaves that cannot be annexed into the city because their neighborhood cannot meet city standards, Mayor Sweetie Marbury said.
The Utilities Director Steve Salka argued the pipes in these areas cost more to maintain because city trucks have trouble accessing the lines.
Councilors said they would like to base any rate increase on hard numbers from Salka’s department.
The potential for the rate structure to burden businesses in the county was also an issue the council will have to grapple with in the future.
“We have to look at what’s the economic benefit to the city,” Christina Rinderle said.
Councilors also decided to make several adjustment to address complaints from city users.
Those who have had been charged more for having a 1-inch meter to serve their fire-suppression sprinkler systems will no longer be subjected to the extra charge.
However, the property owner would be asked to provide proof that they have a fire-suppression system that is served by the same 1-inch meter that provides basic water service, said Mary Beth Miles, assistant to the city manager.
The councilors also decided to expand the rebate program for utilities to all water users who own their home. Previously, the rebate program was available only to those living in the city.
Marbury asked the council to explore expanding the program to renters. But this could carry significant administrative burden and cost, Brown said.
Finally, all water users will be required to pay the monthly base rate for water whether or not they shut off their water while they are out of town for months at a time.
“We’ll still turn water on and off for you because it protects your home, it protects your property,” Utilities Director Steve Salka said.
While many of these changes were made to address residents’ concerns, the prime issue for residents, the online bill pay system, is still outstanding.
City officials are working on making that system functional again as soon as possible, Brown said.