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Joliet water rate hike delayed as council seeks alternatives

Karen Sorensen | 9/16/2015, 9:30 a.m.
A 9 percent increase had been set to go into effect on Oct. 15, the first of four annual escalations ...
Joliet needs to raise water rates to pay for a program to eliminate the city's combined sewer overflow problems and to start replacing pipelines in its aging infrastructure system.

The Joliet water rate hike set to be approved Tuesday and kick in Oct. 15 has been delayed as the city council grapples with ways to reduce the size of the increase.

A 9 percent hike this year had been proposed by the city’s Public Works Department, based on the recommendation of a consultant who analyzed Joliet's current and future needs. Subsequent escalations ranging from 5 percent to 8 percent would follow for the next three years, adding up to a total increase of 28 percent by 2018.

While the rates are in line with what other communities are charging, and fall below the mark considered to be unaffordable for people earning the city’s “average” income, some council members suggested the proposed adjustment might be “excessive.”

The need for the increase is two-fold, Public Utilities Director Jim Eggen said.

First, the city must be able to show it has the income to repay a $71 million expenditure to stop sanitary sewer lines in some areas from combining with storm sewer lines during times of “wet weather” and to expand the East Side water treatment plant. In order to qualify for a low-interest state loan, the payment system has to be in place by mid-2016.

Second, the department needs money to begin a long-term pipeline replacement program to address Joliet’s aging infrastructure system. The total amount generated by the increase for that would be $50 million.

While the first cost is unavoidable – work has already started and has been mandated by the IEPA – council members were not so certain that spending more than $10 million a year fixing and replacing water and sewer pipelines was reasonable.

The number was calculated by Burns & McDonnell, a consulting firm that looked at the city’s future needs given its aging system. It determined that Joliet was facing $223 million in capital improvement projects through 2024, and proposed a 62 percent overall increase in rates to be implemented through that year.

What the study didn’t do was look at ways the public works department could save money and collect outstanding debt from uncollected payments, which is said to add up to about $5 million. A good portion of the money owed is tied to two sanitary districts outside of the city for which Joliet provides services.

Councilman Larry Hug suggested Monday that the city needed to look at that before implementing any kind of rate hike.

“I’m not convinced (the proposed increase) is not excessive,” Hug said. “I’d like to see what a consultant tells us where can save some money before we start charging more.”

While acknowledging that the city had no option but to raise rates to eliminate the combined sewer overflow problem, which is necessitating a pipeline be built below the river, Councilman Jim McFarland said he thought the capital improvements program was a “Cadillac plan.”

“I think what’s being proposed currently our residents cannot afford,” he said.

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk added that the city has far more infrastructure needs than just water and sewer lines and that earmarking $50 million just for that – even at a low-interest loan rate – was not a smart move if not part of a larger plan to address all of Joliet’s capital improvement needs.

The council referred the issue back to committee Tuesday, where the situation will be re-examined before a vote on an increase is made.

Contact Karen Sorensen at Karen@TheTimesWeekly.com.