Lawrence City Commission wants more information before deciding on rate increases for water, solid waste

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Lawrence city commissioners balked Tuesday at the idea of adopting three years of increases to residents’ water, sewer and solid waste rates without receiving more information first. 

Under Municipal Services and Operations staff’s recommendation, the city would raise the average monthly water bill to $145 in 2025 from $115 this year — costing residents an average of $360 more total annually.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei asked MSO staff to produce precise information on each of the capital improvement plan projects that the rate increase would help fund. 

“Without going through that analysis, it’s hard to understand what I’m choosing between,” Finkeldei said. 

Commissioner Amber Sellers asked MSO to put projections in place for vulnerable people who are not currently served by affordability programs. 

The city currently only offers a discounted utility rate to one population sector: low-income elderly people who make less than $14,168 per year can pay 35% of the regular rate. Other populations, such as people under specific poverty thresholds, are not eligible for reduced utility rates. 

“There are other subgroups that will be disproportionately impacted by any utility rate increase, whether it’s a half a percent or even more, so I would like for us as a commission to consider expanding individuals in our community that would potentially qualify for that special rate,” Sellers said. “… Although I would not want to see a rate increase, there is a need for it for us to not continue to kick the can down the line in regards to deferred maintenance, but I would like to put some projections in place for those vulnerable populations.” 

Other commissioners at the end of the meeting gave city staff a consensus to look into adding more people to special rate designations. 

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen embraced the improvement projects included within the MSO plan.  

“One thing that (the recommended scenario) does is it does get us to address quite a few maintenance issues,” Larsen said. “… I’d like to see us push the maintenance as much as we can, as much as we’re comfortable with, because I do think that this is the better way to lead us to having lower rates in the future.” 

Commissioners unanimously suggested MSO remove an $8.15 million taste and odor project from the plan. 

If and when his questions are answered, Finkeldei said he would be reluctant to pass an ordinance adopting a three-year rate increase rather than reviewing the data each year and passing an ordinance annually. Examining the data each year would allow commissioners to integrate any changes that could take place into their decision making, he said. 

“I’m not sure this is the year I want to memorialize three years in ordinance when there’s so many variables out there,” Finkledei said. 

He said because of the current “inflationary system” we’re in, and the potential for different federal infrastructure requests that could bring in funds, “it seems like we will know a lot more a year from now.”

Although commissioners did not vote to approve MSO’s current plan Tuesday, they agreed that a rate hike would need to occur — but precisely how much is still undefined. 

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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