City of Saline residents will have to look to the future for a break on water rates
The City of Saline has issued most, if not all, eligible water bill credits, but questions continue to linger.
“What was the actual increase (in water rates) this time around and what can we expect in the future?” Saline resident Shelly Andrews asked at the Nov. 7 city council meeting. “I think this is what people want to know.”
City Manager Colleen O’Toole partly answered the question, saying “in most cases, the rate increase was between 30 to 40 percent, just as the rate increase itself.”
O’Toole said the exact percentage rate increase could not be pinpointed because it’s tied to water use, which varies.
The city raised water and sewer rates significantly for the summer quarter, prompting questions about the legitimacy of the hike. Subsequent water bill reviews revealed that the city had mistakenly overcharged some residents. The city had read meters in May, prior to the start of the actual quarter (June) and assessed residents at the new higher water rate for earlier use.
Also, some residents had purchased, but not yet received, a second water meter for measurement of irrigation water, which is used to offset sewer charges for water that never enters the sewer system.
Most refunds were nominal, “fifteen to twenty dollars in a typical case,” said O’Toole, adding “we are committed to making sure that all bills are as accurate as possible. . . . We’re happy to talk through that billing process and help where we can.”
Still, the rates continue to receive scrutiny, including from council member Jim Dell’Orco. “What can we do now to address charges that we collected from residents that weren’t justified?”
O’Toole replied: “Under our current rate structure (the charges) are legally justified.”
Saline’s city attorney, Anthony Chubbs, added that the city has a limited, and legally regulated ability, to issue water rate credits. Under Michigan’s Revenue Bond Act, a municipality cannot charge less than the total cost of water and sewer services, he said, explaining that Saline’s large infrastructure expenditures, as well as, the basic cost of service falls under total cost.
“There is a lot of complexity to it because these are obviously some humongous expenses,” Chubbs said. “So when we look at those potential refunds …. To the extent that we can come up with finite accurate numbers – then we can engage in potentially moving forward with refunds. But in those circumstances where it seemingly is a guess . . . I don’t think we could do it accurately enough to meet the requirements of the The Revenue Bond Act.
Future water rates will depend on future water rate studies. However, city council has estimated that the city Saline needs an additional $26 to $28 million in outside funding to not raise future rates.
Multiple city council members did proffer ideas for cutting residential water costs. Mayor Brian Marl said he believed the city could reduce the cost of second meters imposed on residents who opt to have them.
O’Toole cited a pool credit program as possible future policy for the council to enact, adding, "We will be developing policies around that question.”
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