Higher Rates Promised if Columbia Sewer Bonds Increase Fails

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COLUMBIA - An election November 5 will determine whether the city will issue more than $32.3 million dollars in revenue bonds for improvements to the city-owned sewage system.

City officials call the improvements overdue. Erin Keys, an engineering supervisor for Columbia, said there are 675 miles of sewer lines in the city, 225 miles of which are more than 75 years old. Some are even more than 100 years old. Keys said current funding could not make substantial improvements to the old pipes.

"We're really only able to repair or replace a little over a mile to two miles each year and we have 675 miles, so that tells you it's going to take us 300 years to get through all of that," Keys said.

John Blattel, director of finance for Columbia, said that using revenue bonds is the best way to complete the sewer improvements because that approach would increase utility rates less than if the city could not use revenue bonds and the actual users paid as improvement were made.

"We want the citizens that are going to receive the benefits of this issue to be paying," Blattel said. "So if you do a sewer improvement, it's going to be useful for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years. So if you can spread that payment out, the citizens that actually use that service are actually paying for that service."

If voters approve the bonds, the average residential customer would see an average monthly utility rate increase of three dollars, which would be phased in over the next five years. Users would see monthly rate increases of $1.45 in 2015, $1.28 in 2017, and 27 cents in 2019.

If voters do not approve the bonds, the city says a 38 percent sewer rate increase in 2015 would be necessary in order to complete the same proposed projects. This would mean the average residential customer's rates would increase $9.18 per month that year.

"People flush the toilet and it goes away. It's not their problem. They drive down the street and as long as they get to where they're going they don't notice that they're using their infrastructure every day," Keys said. "It's not until there's a problem with them that people start the recognize that it's a pretty valuable asset we have that we need to take care of."

Keys said the majority of bond money would be used to line the old pipes in the city and repair the city's over 20,000 manholes where much of the grouting between the bricks is starting to fail. She said it's not a surprise that the pipes are not working correctly.

"A lot of these pipes were put in between the 1900s and 1960s. There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of pipe that are long past their serviceable life. Those are the pipes that we need to try to upgrade or replace," said Keys.

Resident Jill Lucht said she knows the problems much too well. In 2008 she moved into her home on Aldeah Avenue, which has pipes from the 1920s. There were two sewer backups in her basement that spring and despite purchasing a back flow preventer, her basement still floods with storm water during large rainfalls.

"The basic problem in this neighborhood is that the pipes are cracked and storm water enters the sewer system and that increases the pressure on the line so much that sewage will back up into your basement," said Lucht.

Lucht said almost everyone on her street has had sewer water in their basements at least once. She said she hopes the bonds are approved so that work can start to be done in the older neighborhoods of Columbia like hers.

Not everyone is in support of the revenue bonds. Bill Weitkemper worked for Columbia Public Works for more than 37 years. He said while sewer bonds will need to be passed eventually, there is work that needs to be done first.

Weitkemper said there should be a sewer cost of service study done to make sure everyone in Columbia is being charged the right rate. He also said city officials need to work with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and set the project's priorities, as well as include more public discussion.

"Until you know what you need to do, you can't budget the money to do it," Weitkemper said. "The Department of Natural Resources regulates the city on what the city has to do. We need to work with DNR prior to asking the citizens for more money."

Weitkemper said although he will vote against the bonds, he thinks it will pass.