The Norman Transcript

October 30, 2013

City makes case for wastewater rate increase during public forum

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Norman voters will be asked to consider a sewer service rate fee increase on Nov. 12. The current charge is a $3.90 base rate, plus a use fee of $160 per 1,000 gallons of treated wastewater. Norman’s commodity fee has not been raised since 1996.

The proposed increase would raise the base rate by $1.10 and the use rate by $1.10 per 1,000 gallons.

Currently, Norman is under a consent order by the Department of Environmental Quality. Certain upgrades must be made in the system or the city could face fines of $10,000 per day.

Norman is the only city in Oklahoma where residents vote on utility rates, Utilities Director Ken Komiske said. On Tuesday, the city hosted an informational public forum outlining why the rate increase is needed.

“This is a very necessary infrastructure upgrade that our system needs,” Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said.

The forum was attended by a handful of Boy Scouts and their mothers, a high school student activist and about six other members of the community.

Komiske plowed ahead through the detailed information, despite the lean crowd. The forum was recorded and televised on the city’s public information television channel and will be rerun periodically prior to the event.

Komiske outlined the history of funding, past projects, continuing projects and proposed construction along with the proposed rates. Part of that history is the tracking of the name from sewer to wastewater to water reclamation.

“We don’t make new water,” Komiske said. “What we do is reclaim the water that is there.”

Treatment of sewage, or wastewater, is technology-driven these days, and that effluent — the reclaimed water discharged by the sewer plant — is cleaner than ever before.

That’s good for the environment because that discharge into rivers and creeks throughout the nation eventually ends up in someone’s water supply. As the technology to treat wastewater increases, water reuse has become the movement of the future.

In the meantime, cities like Norman have to pay for maintenance of aging sewer lines and other infrastructure as well as upgrading to meet new requirements by the DEQ.

“The water reclamation fund is an enterprise fund,” Komiske said. “We don’t get tax money.”

While the city has used grant money to help pay for sewer projects in the past, ultimately, it is revenue paid by water and sewer customers that provides money for maintenance and construction projects.

The total project cost for an upgrade at the southside water reclamation plant is $63.1 million.

The project has several components. First and foremost are the regulatory-driven improvements as a result of the DEQ consent order. Other work included in the proposal will allow for increased capacity, replacing obsolete equipment and odor control.

The city will have to borrow the money through revenue bonds to fund much of the project. Those revenue bonds will be repaid through the revenue collected from the city’s customers. Revenue bonds are not paid by taxes.

An average residential customer uses about 3,000 gallons per month and would see a monthly increase of about $3.74 if the ballot measure is approved.

The average commercial user would have an increase of $7.39 per month.

Joy Hampton