Yael T. Abouhalkah

Water bills — and tempers — are rising in the Kansas City area

Kansas City Water Services Department employees used a high pressure water hose to clear a blockage from a sanitation line near 63rd and Holmes streets in Kansas City.
Kansas City Water Services Department employees used a high pressure water hose to clear a blockage from a sanitation line near 63rd and Holmes streets in Kansas City. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

In researching today’s column, I pulled out a file that contained 30 years worth of data and projections for water and sewer rates in this area.

How depressing.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the conclusion: People are paying a lot more to take showers, water lawns and flush toilets in local cities.

Here’s one quick example.

Kansas Citians paid $15.39 a month for an average amount of water in 1990, or about $28 when adjusted for inflation, one of the lowest rates in the region.

Starting May 1, when new rates kick in, residents will be paying $46.59 monthly, for one of the highest charges.

Sewer bills are even more discouraging. Just five years ago, average customers were paying just over $32 a month. Soon, that cost will hit $61.13, easily tops in the area.

Water-related bills also have surged, but usually at a slower pace, in larger districts covering parts of Johnson County, Olathe, Independence and other cities.

And — spoiler alert — these costs are headed even higher, especially in Kansas City.

Sewer rates by themselves have gone up from 13 to 15 percent annually in the city in recent years and are projected to continue at close to that pace. That’s largely because the city has agreed with federal officials to complete a massive overflow control program in the next two decades to keep sewage out of waterways.

The rising monthly bills have irritated a number of residents in the last few years.

That’s one reason Mayor Sly James recently appointed a task force to review the city’s water services system. Its mission will be to help determine whether the city is efficiently using the hundreds of millions of dollars it receives each year to provide high-quality water and sewer services.

However, Kansas Citians shouldn’t get their hopes up that this panel will find some magic bullet to “solve” the problem of escalating costs.

Mayor Kay Barnes asked a citizens group to take a similar look at water rates in the early parts of the previous decade.

Ultimately, Barnes’ efforts did lead to a three-year freeze in water rates only. But that action eventually hurt the city’s ability to more quickly repair its water lines, effectively only postponing higher charges.

Mayor Mark Funkhouser asked the Water Services Utility Funding Task Force later last decade to examine the need to improve the city’s sewer system.

That panel tried to find ways to soften the multibillion-dollar financial blow caused by the overflow control plan. But after reviewing possible federal aid, tax increases and other options, the task force had to go along with hiking customers’ rates.

Still, James’ new task force, which met Tuesday for the first time, ought to try thinking outside the box a bit to best serve Kansas Citians.

▪ It should investigate the pros and cons of privatizing the Water Services Department, which was long mismanaged but is on better footing right now.

▪ The panel should keep close tabs on what Johnson County is doing as it explores expanding its wastewater treatment plant. That project could drain customers from Kansas City, which provides sewer service for parts of that county. But Kansas City also could slash spending on its overflow control plan.

▪ And the group should scrutinize whether the city ought to increase its monthly stormwater charges, as the City Council discussed in early 2015 but suddenly dropped when good questions were raised about that tactic.

People can’t live without water, so it’s important that cities provide ample, safe supplies of it. It’s also crucial for cities to properly treat sewage produced in homes and businesses.

Ultimately, we all just need to pay a fair amount for those services.

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