Strap yourself in for another adventure on the costly Kansas City thrill ride that goes only one way: up.
Water and sewer rates have surged in recent years, leading to lots of complaints and calls to ease these burdens in the future.
Let’s first look at the costs imposed on residential customers, then get to some good news.
▪ Six years ago, the average bill for water, sewer and stormwater services was just shy of $59 a month.
▪ Today, after annual increases of up to 17 percent in sewer rates, the average bill has hit $110.22 a month.
▪ Four years from now, after more hefty increases in sewer charges, the average bill will be an estimated $154.61 a month.
That’s a spike of around 160 percent over just 11 years. Ouch.
Water authorities in Johnson County and elsewhere locally also have boosted rates, partly to meet federal rules and to repair aging infrastructure.
Still, Kansas City’s sewer rates — among the lowest in the region less than a decade ago — have soared to the highest mark of major area utilities.
City Hall has heard plenty of anguish over this situation and has formed a diverse Water Cost of Service Task Force. Fine, hold the applause, because appointing committees doesn’t solve any problem.
But having specific goals in mind certainly will. Based on interviews Wednesday, this task force appears to have the right kind of focused leadership from City Council member Scott Wagner, along with a strong support team in the Water Services Department led by director Terry Leeds.
Another positive point needs to be emphasized for customers.
As the higher rates have been charged this decade, the city has kept its word to fix many of the worst leaks in water lines and to annually replace 1 percent of the 2,800-mile water-line system.
The department also has diligently carried out a mammoth bid to stop sewer overflows during heavy rains. The program, reached in an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, could cost up to $5 billion over 25 years. That is a big reason residents have seen double-digit wastewater rate increases.
The city is repairing sewers and is prepared to build huge, expensive storage tanks, all known as “gray” solutions to overflow control problems.
The city also has installed “green” demonstration projects in a few neighborhoods such as Marlborough. These include the use of rain gardens, ponds and permeable pavement.
One way to reduce future wastewater rate increases is to ask the EPA to extend the time the city has to finish its overflow control program. The city expects to point out that water bills are imposing higher-than-expected financial burdens on residents, keeping in mind the only slight recent increases in local median family incomes.
The city’s panel will review other options to keep future rate increases reasonable.
Seeking federal help will be on that list. So could a different rate structure, perhaps penalizing heavier users. A higher stormwater fee, even quadrupling to $10 a month, might be coming to a citywide ballot. Better ways are needed to collect overdue water bills, especially on the exceptionally high percentage of rental properties in the city.
Other issues loom.
Johnson County officials plan to build an improved wastewater treatment plant in Leawood by 2021. It will divert plenty of waste now sent to Kansas City’s system. That would reduce the Water Services Department’s income but also could eliminate the need to build a large storage tank in the city.
The task force plans to hold a public hearing next January and to release its recommendations by April 2017.
Reducing future rate increases and the thrills provided by the cost-of-water ride in Kansas City would be a real victory for customers.