NORMAN — The Norman Utilities Authority faces inflation and increased costs just like every other business. Unlike private businesses, however, the NUA and its sister trash service, the Norman Municipal Authority, cannot raise rates to meet costs without a vote of approval by Norman residents.
Less than two years ago in August 2010, voters rejected proposed rate increases for sanitation and water. Now, with Oklahoma’s water supply potentially reaching a crisis point this summer and the cost of curbside recycling on the rise, city leaders and staff are shuffling to make ends meet with the dollars already available.
A big feather in the cap of Mayor Cindy Rosenthal and city staff is a pending contract with Del City for a portion of its Lake Thunderbird allotment. On Feb. 23, 2011, Rosenthal and City Manager Steve Lewis went to Del City to talk to the mayor and city manager there about leasing some of Del City’s Thunderbird allocation.
This week Norman City Council previewed a draft contract with Del City and will likely vote on the contract at the next city council meeting this coming Tuesday.
In addition to Del City’s cooperation, city leaders had to obtain the support of the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District that manages and protects Lake Thunderbird.
“It has taken a while, but I am very happy that our outreach has come to fruition,” Rosenthal said.
Declining lake levels and continued drought resulted in COMCD reducing the allocation of its three water customers — Norman, Del City and Midwest City — by 10 percent. Thunderbird supplies about two-thirds of Norman’s water. The city quickly implemented mandatory water conservation and began looking for a safety net to carry the city through the hot summer months when water usage increases.
The contract with Del City will help Norman stay within its allocation. It will not, however, help Norman produce more treated water when the system is already at capacity during peak summer usage.
“This will not get us more water in the summer when we exceed capacity,” Utilities Director Ken Komiske said. “It doesn’t make the pipes bigger so we can get more water.”
Norman hopes it will still be able to buy treated water on an emergency basis from Oklahoma City this summer when demand exceeds supply, but that could be a big “if.” OKC is struggling with water issues of its own.
Meanwhile, the Del City contract is good news for Norman as the city works toward building a comprehensive water portfolio to meet customer needs during the drought and beyond.
“Usage will be determined annually, and COMCD will bill us based on how much we use,” Assistant City Attorney Kathryn Walker said.
The proposed contract would start in May and run for five years with the potential for renewal of another five years. COMCD set the price for surplus untreated water at 33 cents per 1,000 gallons for this year, and that is the rate in the contract with Del City. Norman can draw up to 300 million gallons each year, but that could increase to 500 million gallons if both cities agree.
“All three cities pay a set fee for their allocations,” Komiske said. “This money will flow through COMCD but will offset Del City’s costs for its allocation.”
The city council also has been working with NMA on curbside recycling. The contract with Recycle America, a subsidiary of Waste Management, is coming to an end, and costs for the weekly collections are exceeding the $3 voters approved to pay for the service.
City staff presented proposals including a move to biweekly curbside service.
The biweekly collections would use a polycart allowing for the addition of cardboard to the recycling portfolio and would allow the city to continue the recycling operations without the need to ask voters for a rate increase. Polycarts hold more, have lids to prevent the wind blowing trash around and are easy to get to the curb because they have wheels.
“We are improving the service,” Rosenthal said.
Council member Tom Kovach questioned whether the council could change from weekly to biweekly without a vote.
“We concluded that whether to change the frequency of collection does not require voter approval,” City Attorney Jeff Bryant said. “You can’t adjust the rates. The only thing you can adjust are the operations. The service does not change the rate. They are different components.”