What is going on with Water in Westminster

I have been asked by a few friends and residents to address the attempt to recall me, and three other progressive members of council. Those organizing the recall claim it is due to a water rate increase that was passed in 2018, more than two years ago, and over a year before the last election, where I was overwhelming re-elected.  It is also important to note one of the members they attempted to recall wasn’t even on council when we voted on water rates.  This isn’t an issue I can sum up in a sound bite, so bear with me.  

 

My responsibility to the community is to ensure that we provide safe, dependable and reliable drinking water. It would have been a whole lot easier not to raise rates, that would be the politically expedient choice, but it would be deeply irresponsible and put my own ease above the long term health of the community. 

 

The recall attempt was truly disappointing, and the language around it was often misleading. But before I begin to discuss that,  I want to say this last year has been a hard year and this and last summer were hard summers for a lot of residents. Many residents experienced job losses, or salary reductions due to the economic impact of this pandemic. Second, also due to COVID most of us are home a lot more of the time, using more water in our homes. And finally we were in a significant drought, and without rainy days residents are watering their lawns more often. Across the Front Range Colorado water utilities saw a 33% increase in water usage last summer. 

I also want to share that I know what it is like to be in a situation where an increase in a monthly payment can cause real anxiety, and force hard financial decisions.  I don’t want to dismiss the financial impact of a higher than expected water bill.  That is why we have created multiple programs to help folks who are having financial difficulties, or just need assistance in lowering their consumption.  Here is info on those programs: 

https://www.cityofwestminster.us/waterbillassistance

https://www.cityofwestminster.us/Residents/Water/Rates/2021WaterandSewerRateProposal

I am disheartened to have individuals attack members of Westminster staff, and imply they have some corrupt motivation to recommend rate increases.  I am disheartened that a hard and responsible vote is being leveraged by some in the community for their own political ends. I fear this will have a long term impact on the community regardless that the recall attempt was not successful.  Staff’s job is to provide objective professional opinions and recommendations to council.  It would be incredibly detrimental for staff to start weighing if their recommendations will be politically popular. I for one want more politicians who are willing to do the right thing even if it is hard, versus politicians that have their finger in the air, and are constantly counting votes.  I am proud of the council I served with in 2018 for doing the responsible thing. 

 

So now for some myth busting: 

1. Did we raise rates in the middle of a pandemic? No.  In 2018 Westminster City Council voted to raise rates for 2019, and 2020.  Those rates came into effect in January of each year.  But because of the pandemic we did vote to not increase rates for 2021.

2.  Did we raise rates just to force you to conserve water? No.  Rates were data driven and set to cover the cost of needed repairs and replacements of our utility system. Westminster did a multi-year study to analyze the age and condition of our utility.  We found that 25% of our $4 billion dollar asset was beyond its designed for life.  Obviously we could not fix or replace everything at once, staff determined the most critical needs, and the city raised rates to finance that capital need. Our city charter dictates that council must set rates to meet the operating cost of the utility. I feel I was fulfilling my charter responsibility.

 

3. Did we raise rates by 100%, 200%, or 300% in 2020?  In 2020 Tier 1 (up to the first 6,000gallons)  rates went from $3.57 to $3.96 per 1,000 gallons, a $0.39 increase per 1,000 gallons or 10.9%.  For Tier 2( 6,001-20,000 gallons) the rate went from $7.35 to $8.15 per 1,000 gallons, an increase of $0.80 per 1,000 gallons or a 10.9% increase, and finally for Tier 3 (20,000 +) rates increased from  $11.62 to $12.88, an increase of a $1.26 per 1,000 gallons, or a 10.8% increase.  

 

4.  Are our rates the highest in the state, nation, universe? No. See the attached link.  I will admit we are on the high end, but we are not the highest.  And the problem is it is hard to compare rates between water utilities are dealing with different variables depending on the age and condition of their system.  Westminster had its most growth during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  This means a large percentage of our infrastructure is between 50 and 30 years old, and is aging out at the same time. 

 

5. Did we add Tiers to our water rates?  No.  Westminster has utilized tiered water rates for over 30 years. Tiers are important they ensure that we are each paying for our fair share of impact on our water system. Tiers ensure low water users aren't subsidizing high water users.  Tier pricing sets an important conservation signal.   Colorado is an arid state and water is a scarce and precious resource.  We need to be mindful of our water consumption.  Those who use more water than average dramatically raise the cost of producing water.  We have to design and build our system to accommodate peak demand, typically the hottest day in July or August when the most residents are watering their yards. When we have a high volume of water needed to meet peak demand, we have to engineer an entire system that can handle that capacity. This dramatically escalates costs for the entire system.  In 2018 we did vote to adjust the pricing between tiers to ensure everyone was paying their fair share, no more and no less.

6. Did we raise water rates to support or accommodate new development? No. When new development occurs in Westminster the development is charged Tap Fees.  Tap Fees pay for the developments impact on our water and waste water system and water resources.  Rates pay for the ongoing operation and maintenance of our system. Westminster's water and waste water utility is an enterprise fund. This means it is a closed system, it only receives revenues through water rates and tap fees and can only spend money within the system.  

I could go on and on.  And if you have specific questions I am happy to answer them.  This was a hard situation, with no easy answers.  I feel I have a responsibility, and a duty of care to this community.  I can’t imagine ignoring the needs of our utility because it was politically advantageous. If we had to issue boil orders, or had massive water main breaks disrupting service to homes, or businesses I would have been negligent in my duties, at the expensive of human health.  There are examples of many communities where leaders tried to cut corners, instead of investing in infrastructure, it never ends well for the residents.  

 

https://www.cityofwestminster.us/Portals/1/Documents/Government%20-%20Documents/Departments/Public%20Works%20and%20Utilities/SingleFamilyAnnualCombinedBillRegionalComparison_LowAvgHighWaterUserV2.pdf?ver=2020-09-01-125936-533