The Norman Transcript

August 14, 2013

Wastewater talks down the drain

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Sewer rate discussions hit a stalemate Tuesday night at the Norman City Council study session. Council members disagreed on whether to raise only the commodity (usage) rate or to also increase the base rate and whether to use Sewer Sales Tax Funds to offset the construction costs of upgrading the southside sewer plant.

Currently, Norman’s sewer service base rate is $3.90. The commodity rate is $1.60 per 1,000 gallons of water used. Winter water usage is used to establish sewer rates for customers because sewage is not metered. Current rates were established in 1996.

Norman is under a consent order by the Department of Environmental Quality and must upgrade the sewer plant or face fines of $10,000 a day. Additionally, the wastewater treatment plant is almost at capacity. The project would add five million gallons a day of capacity, upgrade and replace aging equipment and provide odor control.

The total project cost is $63 million, but sewer excise funds will be used to cover 40 percent of the project. Revenue bonds will be issued to cover the needed funds for the rest of the construction. Because of a clause in the city charter, Norman voters must approve any utility rate increase with a public vote. That ballot is slated for Nov. 5.

But city council members must reach an agreement on what proposal to put before voters in November. A preliminary consensus was anticipated at the city council’s non-voting study session Tuesday evening, with formal adoption of a fee schedule planned for later this month.

So far, no clear consensus has emerged on key issues.

Council members were split on whether it is appropriate to use $5.7 million in leftover sewer sales tax money for the southside project. The topic raises a long-standing political controversy over whether those funds can be used or must be kept for use on a future northside sewer plant.

Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said she fears there will be a strong “no” vote on the sewer rate increase if that money is not used to offset the cost. The use of the $5.7 million will make about a 40 to 50 cent difference on the average residential customer’s monthly bill.

All of the rate increase proposals under consideration would raise the average residential bill about $3 per month. A commercial customer using 4,000 gallons per month would see an increase of about $7 per month without the use of the Sewer Sales Tax fund and about $6 per month if the fund is used.

Norman resident Jeanette Coker asked about University of Oklahoma’s sewer rates.

Norman Utilities Director Ken Komiske said the university pays the same commercial rate other businesses pay, but for OU, Norman meters wastewater.

“Listening to this, it seems like you should ask yourself, what do you need to make a profit and get into the black,” former council member Roger Gallagher said. “It’s got to break even or go into the black. We need to operate efficiently.”