So the proverbial sewage does not hit the fan all at once, the city of Durango will phase in a sewer rate increase in 2013.
The plan is to double residential and commercial rates by the end of next year. Based on usage of 2,000 gallons of water, the monthly residential rate would double to $15.64 and the commercial rate would similarly increase to $21.84.
Beginning in January 2013, consumers would have to pay for only a 50 percent increase because the full implementation of the rate increases would be delayed until December. So residential consumers in January would start out paying a fee of $11.75 while commercial consumers would pay $16.40 a month.
“We’re doing it in a stepped approach so everybody is not getting it all at once,” said Steve Salka, director of utilities for the city of Durango.
The City Council, which has toured the wastewater treatment plant, voted 4-0 Tuesday to accept the sewer rates with Mayor Doug Lyon absent.
Salka said “sewer rates have effectively been flat for 20 years. Instead of incrementally going up a little bit every few years or so, they kept it relatively flat. Now everybody is paying to get everything where it should be.”
Councilor Paul Broderick, who said he does not take rate increases lightly, also lamented having to make a big rate increase to effectively play catch up. It’s “a shame,” he said. “We were milking our assets and just getting by.”
Because the South Durango Sanitation District serves consumers such as Walmart and Mercy Regional Medical Center that are south of the high bridge on U.S. Highway 160, the city has not had to expand its system, but it also has missed out on revenue from these consumers to pay for increases in its fixed costs, Salka said.
Even with the rate increase, city consumers will still be paying relatively low rates. Neighboring sewer districts charge about $35 to $40 a month for the same level of service, according to a Durango report.
“If you compare us to other (local systems), we have a lot more equipment to take care of,” Salka said.
During the summer, for example, the city had to remove 600 pounds of fat that were clogging sewer lines within two downtown blocks of Main Avenue.
The city is hoping the $840,000 in additional revenue generated by the rate increase will pay for much-needed preventive maintenance and allow the city to keep up with changes in regulatory requirements.
Salka described a system that is rotting away with pipes 50 to 60 years old.
Lift stations, which date back to the early 1980s, need permanent backup systems in case of a power failure. The city currently responds to breakdowns with portable generators.
Salka worries that the city would not be able to deal with an overflow of sewage in a crisis.
“There’s no valve to turn (the sewage) off,” he said.
Salka also would like the additional revenue to hire two additional employees so the city would be in a better position to respond to emergencies.
There are other overdue repairs, such as a leaky roof for the administration building at the wastewater-treatment plant and sewage-treatment tanks that need covering.
Councilor Christina Rinderle agreed that the system has been “limping along.”
Councilor Sweetie Marbury likened the rate increase to paying for necessary home maintenance so as to prevent small problems from turning into bigger ones.
“It’s very clear to me. This has to happen,” Marbury said.
She told Salka, who was hired last summer as utilities director, that “this is not the glamorous department, but you are a rock star.”