Thomas Bibbs, a longtime urban core neighborhood leader, has watched with alarm as his monthly water bills have spiked in recent years to nearly $100 per month.
“That is definitely a hardship in our neighborhood,” said Bibbs, who lives near Linwood Boulevard and Norton Avenue and is president of the Palestine Neighborhood Development Corp. “It’s a terrible hardship, particularly for seniors.”
It’s a refrain heard throughout the city, as Kansas City Water Services has increased its charges to replace ancient water mains and to deal with an Environmental Protection Agency mandate for a massive sewer replacement project. Average monthly residential bills have spiked from $48 in 2009 to $102 this year.
On Thursday, the City Council endorsed a plan to try to provide some rate relief, although it won’t happen quickly and current rates aren’t likely to drop.
“We looked at ways to ensure our customers do get relief over the long term,” said Sean Hennessy, the water department’s chief financial officer.
The council supported recommendations of a citizens task force that spent more than a year studying how to improve Kansas City’s crumbling water and sewer infrastructure while trying to alleviate skyrocketing costs.
The main recommendation is for the city to reopen negotiations this year with the EPA and the U.S. Justice Department on a 25-year sewer overhaul plan that was approved in 2010 and was estimated to cost several billion dollars. It’s an unfunded federal mandate that is currently being paid for with local sewer rate increases.
The double-digit rate increases were calculated in 2008, when Kansas City incomes were expected to rise by about 2 to 3 percent per year. But instead, they’ve been virtually stagnant since 2010, so city officials argue the sewer charges are becoming increasingly unaffordable and burdensome.
The city also argues that if some required features of the sewer overhaul program could be reduced or eliminated, such as huge underground storage facilities, that could reduce the overall cost and help rein in rate increases.
The initial negotiations with the EPA took several years, so City Councilman Scott Wagner, who chaired the task force, cautioned that changes to the plan and rate relief may take several more years.
The recommendations also call for providing a larger assistance fund for low-income residents and continued outreach to residents on ways to save on water use and costs.
The changes can’t come soon enough for William Ingram, a 74-year-old south Kansas City resident. His bill in January was $93, so he really tried to conserve water after that and managed to lower his February bill to $60. But that was only by taking “Navy showers,” using very little water for soaping and rinsing.
His latest bill, including some landscape watering, came to $119.
“I’m caught in the middle,” he said. “Social Security has not gone up.”
John Rich, executive director of the Mid America Assistance Coalition, was on the water task force and agrees rate relief is needed. He said the water department provides funds on a quarterly basis to assist low-income families, but the money always runs out within the first 30 days. Since the start of the fiscal year May 1, social service agencies have served 265 households, with $85,509.