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To Fix Water Pipes, Rate Hikes Likely

As in many systems, neglect long-standing
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
News Staff Reporter

Last week, when explaining why Ann Arbor residents are facing water rates rising at more than twice the rate of inflation, Public Services Area Administrator Sue McCormick described some of the city's efforts to repair its aging pipes as "Band-Aids on Band-Aids.''

After what city officials call decades of neglect, residents are having to make up for the lack of improvements through higher and higher rate payments.

The city revised its rate structure in spring 2004 and introduced quarterly water and sewage charges. In March 2004, the average quarterly water bill was $105.12 for 21 ccf (one ccf equals 100 cubic feet or about 748 gallons). The latest proposed rate hike would boost that 21 ccf bill to $147.52, an accumulated jump of 40 percent.

City Council Member Chris Easthope, D-5th Ward, persuaded his colleagues to delay approving the latest increase until the staff explored alternative measures. Easthope and Council Member Leigh Greden, D-3rd Ward, met with McCormick last Thursday.

They are working on a plan to hold just the water portion of the rate increase to 4.2 percent for only residential customers, instead of the approximately 7 percent hike proposed by the city staff.

"Other cities are raising rates at much higher rates,'' Greden said. "But we'd like to give Ann Arbor taxpayers a break.''

Any change in the proposed plan would have to be approved by the council in July.

In the past three years, the city has spent $653,783 repairing 219 water main breaks. From 2005 through 2008, city officials estimate that it will have spent another $100,000 on infrastructure improvements in its water, sewer and storm water systems.

McCormick said that even at the rate of the increases, the city isn't keeping up with what needs to be done. The city's utilities are separate "enterprise'' funds, which means they have to be self-sufficient, relying on rates and fees.

The problem is not restricted to Ann Arbor.

The Water Infrastructure Network, a nationwide coalition of elected officials and water department leaders, issued a report in 2000 that exposed how unprepared municipalities across the country were when it came to paying for looming infrastructure improvements.

The report found an estimated $23 billion gap in funding to replace aging and failing pipes over the next 20 years. Another report estimated that municipalities around the country will need to spend $250 billion on improvements over the next 30 years. Resident Penny VonEschen has a family of three and has noticed an increase in water bills but said that "it hasn't gone up a great deal."

VonEschen said that if the rate increases are being used to pay for infrastructure improvements, she supports them.

"I have no problem with that,'' VonEschen said. "If my Comcast bill goes up, I am highly annoyed. I don't think that is reasonable whatsoever. I put this in a completely different category.''

Retiree Andrew Slade said that he has been blessed financially so the increase doesn't have much of an impact on his life. "I'm doing quite well,'' Slade said. "I know a lot of people that it is going to hurt, especially with the economy. We can holler and scream ... but you can't do anything about it.''

Tom Gantert can be reached at or 734-994-6701.

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