Kansas City wants to modify a $5 billion agreement with the federal government to overhaul its aging sewer infrastructure. The effort has found bipartisan support from Missouri’s two U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. But the push might not slow the rising cost of water, wastewater and stormwater utilities.
Repeated violations of the Clean Water Act put the city on the federal government’s radar screen. A 2010 consent decree required Kansas City to overhaul its sewer system during a 25-year period.
A recent letter signed by Cleaver and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, both Missouri Democrats, as well as Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, asked the Environmental Protection Agency to consider the city’s request for a modification.
Officials believe spreading the plan out over a longer time frame could smooth out the rate increases. But an extension could increase the burden on ratepayers in the long term and possibly subject the area’s waterways to more damage.
Curtis Carey, a spokesman for the EPA, said the agency is committed to working with the city on a solution. That’s a good start, but negotiations could take years.
The current price tag for the Sewer Smart overflow control program is $4.5 billion. The unfunded federal mandate maxes out at $5 billion.
The most practical recommendations include:
▪ Instituting an advance payment policy for new customers in order to build greater financial stability.
▪ Using late fees for low-income customer assistance, community gardens, water efficiency and other programs.
▪ Modifying the current customer assistance program by lowering the maximum amount — $500 — distributed to an individual customer in order to help more people.
▪ Pursuing state and federal funds for water and wastewater infrastructure as part of the city’s legislative agenda.
The city’s water department has been forward-thinking with its commitment of more than $1.2 billion since 2011 to repair hundreds of neighborhood sewer mains and other wastewater infrastructure. But the mounting costs have been passed on to customers at a dizzying pace. Wastewater rates have averaged a double digit increase each year since 2010 with little relief in sight.
Residents who have trouble paying their bills have some options to avoid disconnection, but suspended accounts continue to multiply.
Service was shut off to 18,763 customers last year. Almost 5,600 customers were shut off between Jan. 1 and May 18 of this year.
“We recognize that the economic impact on residents has become alarming,” Water Services Department Director Terry Leeds said.
That’s an understatement.
City officials have known for decades that the city’s aging infrastructure needed repair. Even without a modified consent decree, city officials should move quickly to implement the task force’s recommendations and consider other options for providing relief to customers who are drowning in sky-high water bills.