The Norman Transcript

August 25, 2010

Voters turn down water, sanitation increases

By Andrew Knittle
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Norman voters emphatically voted down water and trash rate hikes Tuesday after months of courting by city officials and members of the Norman City Council.

According to the Cleveland County Election Board, the proposed rate hike for the sanitation fund failed, but not as badly as the proposed water rate increase. In total, 58.85 percent of voters, or 5,302 residents, voted against the trash rate hike, while only 41.15 percent voted in favor of it.

The proposed water rate hike failed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, with only 34.13 percent of residents supporting the rate increase. In total, 5,980 residents, or 65.87 percent, voted against the water rate hike.

Mayor Cindy Rosenthal wasn’t pleased with the outcome, but vowed to keep working on the issues that led the city to ask for the rate increases in the first place.

“The election’s over, we’ve heard what the voters have to say,” Rosenthal said Tuesday night. “But the financial condition of these two utilities is not changed by the vote.”

Rosenthal said both utilities “desperately need” rate hikes, adding that services provided by both may very well be reduced or changed to correspond to a lack of sufficient funds. She also said important capital projects and other long-term maintenance issues will have to be placed on the back burner until funding becomes available.

As for the economy, Rosenthal said she had no doubt it had an effect on the fate of the two proposed rate hikes.

“I think that’s a huge part of it, the economy,” she said. “Unfortunately, as a city, when we bring a proposition to the voters, we can’t make the economic climate any different than it is.”

The mayor said council will take the defeat in stride and continue working on the problems facing the city’s water and trash services.

“Sure, we’re disappointed because council put in many, many long hours putting this together and we spent a lot of time on these things,” Rosenthal said. “Tomorrow we’ll start looking at how we balance the expenditure side and the revenue side … that’s the challenge we’re faced with.”

The first round of new rates would have taken effect Oct. 1, with the typical Norman resident paying about $5 more per month, Finance Director Anthony Francisco said.

New rates would’ve rolled out over the next three fiscal years, with the larger, initial increases to both services coming Oct. 1.

The next two increases would’ve taken effect July 1, 2011, and July 1, 2012.

Sanitation rates for residential customers would’ve increased $1 each fiscal year, going from $14.50 to $17.50 by the end of the three-year period.

The typical residential water customer — those using about 7,000 gallons per month — would’ve seen a roughly $2-per-month increase in the first year, followed by smaller increases of about $1 per month over the next two fiscal years.

Commercial water and sanitation customers would’ve seen similar hikes had the propositions been approved by voters, city officials said.

Ken Komiske said the sanitation fund, which hasn’t seen a hike since 2004, would’ve used the additional money coming in simply to keep going, citing swollen salaries, insurance and benefits of department employees, higher fuel costs, steeper tipping fees and more expensive garbage trucks.

If the rate hike had been approved, most of the new funds flowing into the water fund would’ve been used to maintain existing city-owned water supply infrastructure, compensate for the higher price of chemicals used to treat drinking water and meet growing day-to-day operating expenses.

Two percent of the funds would’ve been used to pay off debt related to Lake Thunderbird, while another 6 percent would’ve been used to pursue future water supply options — which include bringing water from Lake Sardis in southeast Oklahoma, investing in systems that allow for reuse of drinking water (something not regulated or allowed in Oklahoma at this point) or possibly partnering with the city of Ada to build a new reservoir for both towns to use.

The city could’ve also used some of that 6 percent to reclaim groundwater wells lost in 2006 when the Environmental Protection Agency lowered what is considered acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water.

Andrew Knittle 366-3540 aknittle@normantranscript.com