Denver: Big bump in storm and sanitary sewer rates in the works

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From The Denver Post (Jon Murray):

Denver homeowners on average would pay $116 more in storm drainage and sewer fees over the next five years under a rate increase proposal that city officials will unveil this week.

The proposed rates, which would accelerate already scheduled automatic increases based on inflation, would bolster city plans for upgrades and projects through 2021 for the storm and sanitary sewer systems. Those aim to improve storm drainage, reduce flood risk and improve the quality of water discharged into the South Platte River. For the sanitary system that connects to homes and buildings, plans call for more maintenance and expansion of aging sewer pipes in several areas.

Storm drain and open channel improvements between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and the South Platte River (Globeville Landing Outfall), Stormwater detention/conveyance between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and Colorado Blvd, (Montclair Basin) Stormwater detention/ conveyance immediately east of Colorado Blvd. (Park Hill Basin).
Storm drain and open channel improvements between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and the South Platte River (Globeville Landing Outfall), Stormwater detention/conveyance between the East Rail Line (38th & Blake Station) and Colorado Blvd, (Montclair Basin)
Stormwater detention/ conveyance immediately east of Colorado Blvd. (Park Hill Basin).

A big controversial project also is in the mix. About a quarter of the rate increases would help cover costs for northeast Denver’s “Platte to Park Hill” stormwater drainage projects, which have drawn opposition in part because of links to the planned Interstate 70 expansion and plans to regrade City Park Golf Course for stormwater detention.

Overall, storm drainage rates, which are billed annually by the city, would increase nearly 66 percent through 2020 — or 45 percent after annual inflation adjustments are taken into account.

The sanitary sewer rates that Denver Water customers pay monthly would increase 24 percent in that period. On top of the inflation adjustments, the new increase would amount to 8.6 percent.

Though Denver Public Works’ increase proposal was expected, the details were revealed this week for the first time in advance of a planned Wednesday presentation to the City Council’s Infrastructure and Culture Committee.

The proposal could advance to a final vote by the full council as early as May 23.

With the city facing an estimated $1.5 billion backlog in upgrades to stormwater pipes and an aging sewer system, Denver city officials portray the increases as necessary to step up progress.

“Just like so many other things in our city, we have huge infrastructure needs that are incredibly expensive,” said Councilman Jolon Clark, who chairs the infrastructure committee. “And we don’t have a way to pay for them,” requiring balanced plans.

If the rate increases win council approval, the money available each year for storm drainage system improvement and water quality projects would grow from $20 million to $30 million. For sanitary sewers, the city says the rate increase would boost annual spending for maintenance and new projects from $2.5 million to $8 million.

Public Works spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said the sanitary increase also would help the city “keep pace with increasing water treatment costs, update aging infrastructure and prepare the system for the city’s future expected population growth.”

Among the proposal’s major upshots:

• Sanitary sewer fee proceeds would grow from $86 million a year to $104 million in 2020.

• The total annual storm drainage fees generated would grow from $41 million before the increase to nearly $69 million by 2020.

• The fee increases would enable borrowing of up to $206 million for the Platte to Park Hill projects, completing a funding puzzle estimated at $267 million to $298 million in scope.

But the proposal would hit homeowners and businesses in the wallet as the city ratchets up both the storm drainage and sanitary sewer rates each year through 2020, starting in July. Subsequent increases would hit each January, starting in 2017.

The annual increase for an average single-family home, which paid $320.28 last year, would range from $21.56 this year to $25 in 2020, city estimates show.

A study provided by the city says that current average combined bill is about $100 less than the average for a selection of other Front Range systems and large cities around the state. Denver’s estimated combined bill in 2020 would rate slightly above today’s average.

Clark said he probed planned water-quality improvements during a briefing he received on the proposal. In 17 years of working for The Greenway Foundation, he focused heavily on the Platte, which at times has measured E. coli bacteria levels exceeding safety standards. Other contaminants, including trash, also have been a problem.

“I think this plan will have marked improvements on water quality in our streams and rivers,” Clark said. “And it’s a really good start, but this isn’t the end of the conversation on water quality.”

Besides the automatic inflation adjustments, the city most recently increased sanitary sewer rates a cumulative 83 percent from 2011 through 2013. The storm drainage rate was increased 20 percent in 2011.

A presentation prepared for the council committee says the city could aid ratepayers by asking Denver Water to add the storm drainage fee — now billed annually — to water customers’ bills, on a monthly or quarterly basis. The storm fee factors in a lot’s size and the amount of impermeable surface area.

Officials also are exploring “potential affordability program options” to aid low-income households.

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