Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:49 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When city makes changes, it should involve its citizens


There's an ancient Mayan legend: When the Homer City Council passes a sewer and water fee schedule that nobody complains about, the world as we know it will end.

Well, whew — that's a relief. Based on public testimony at Monday night's city council meeting, that will never happen. OK, we're joking about that legend, but not about the challenge of crafting a fair and equitable fee schedule agreeable to all. The council has been tinkering with the rates for years, and when it does, as sure as salmon runs, any change leads to protests from affected groups.

The harsh reality of Homer's award-winning sewer and water system is that it's expensive. As Public Works Director Carey Meyer said, the water is free. So is sewage. Taking water from the Bridge Creek Reservoir, treating it and piping it to homes is what we pay for. On the other end, treating effluent so it doesn't pollute Kachemak Bay also costs money.

The real cost of sewer and water comes from infrastructure and maintenance. That's part of the problem. For example, those 5 miles of pipe to the end of the Homer Spit have to be paid for, even though for the first few miles just a handful of homes use it. With its latest fee schedule, the city tried to spread that infrastructure cost by charging a $45 monthly service charge to each apartment just as it does homeowners.

Not widely discussed was that to some degree the service charge increase is offset by a decrease from commercial to residential rates — putting a 900-square-foot apartment on the same schedule as a 900-square-foot cabin. For every 1,000 gallons of water used, apartment fees dropped from $11.40 a month for sewer to $4.42 and for water from $12.64 to $9.97.

For a duplex with each unit using 3,000 gallons a month, or 6,000 total, the charge per building drops from $189.24 to $176.34, a savings of $12.90 a year. For a 10-plex with each unit using 3,000 gallons a month, there's an increase of $115.50 from $766.20 under the old fee schedule to $881.71. Passed on to each unit, that's an $11.55 monthly increase.

An analysis shows that all apartments combined resulted in a net $5,957.51 monthly revenue gain or $71,490.08 yearly to the city.

Still, apartment owners grumbled because they saw the charge as a meter-reading fee — and they weren't adding meters. It didn't help that a billing error overcharged customers, so it was difficult to see the real changes.

As it turns out, the changes aren't that onerous. According to a city finance department spreadsheet, with the new fees, the average monthly increase per unit is $9.82 — although when you're a senior or low-income renter, even that hurts. Some units save money, such as $93 a month for one complex.

The controversy shows how the city needs to better explain changes and the process, but it also speaks to the need to involve citizens, such as a task force. People will always complain, but if they understand how rates change, maybe they'll complain less.