Rochester City Council on Monday, June 11, approved a measure to expedite water and sewer rate changes that will help protect the city from absorbing pass-through fees in the future.
The city has two separate water systems, with the eastern half of the city supplied water by the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) by way of Shelby Township, and the western portion served by a municipal water well located off Livernois Road. The city's department of public works is responsible for maintenance of the water and sewer systems within the city limits.
Currently, water and sewer rates for each of the systems are set by city ordinance. That means annual rate changes must be set through an ordinance amendment, a process that includes a public notice, public hearing and two readings (or approvals) by city council. However, the city's infrastructure committee in 2017 recommended removing the rate structure from the city code and allowing rates to be set through a single resolution by city council.
Rochester City Manager Blaine Wing said part of the challenge of the ordinance process is that pass-through rate increases from the GLWA and Shelby Township often go into effect before city council is able to amend its own rate through the ordinance process. That means the city often absorbs the cost of the increases until the process is completed, which may take 60 to 90 days.
By removing the rate structure from the city's ordinances and adding it to a master fee schedule that may be adjusted by a single resolution by city council, the process may be expedited, along with pass-through fees.
Rochester City Attorney Jeffrey Kragt said the city has already made such changes to other fees in the city, and that water and sewer fees are adjusted frequently.
"The city council would still be required to have adjustments as an agenda item and specifically approve it at a public meeting," Kragt said.
Councilman Ben Giovanelli said he was in favor of the change, but wanted to include a caveat in the motion to ensure that city council reviews water and sewer rates on an annual basis. Doing so, he said, would encourage greater transparency in the process.
Rochester resident Susan Douglas said while she didn't oppose the change, she encouraged council to continue the publication of public notices regarding water rate changes in order to keep the public informed.
"The paid advertising will be missing as part of the rate changes," she said. "I wouldn't mind if you did it this way, as long as you still did the noticing."
Wing said an additional page has already been added to the city's website specifically listing and explaining water and sewer rates, as well as a page including those rate changes from previous years. That information may be found at ci.rochester.mi.us/358/Water-and-Sewer-Rates-and-Services.
Councilwoman Kim Russell agreed with Douglas, saying that she too believes the city should continue publishing notices to keep the public better informed.
Councilman Stuart Bikson also agreed that measures to maintain a high-level of transparency should be taken, as there continues to be concern about the city's new water and sewer rate policy implemented in 2017.
"The new policy is deeply unpopular," he said. "I had a resident call me. He wasn't in his house for a year, and when he got his bill he was hit for an additional $100. The notion that you only get billed for what you use isn't really there. People are still having huge problems with the new policy."
The previous city council in 2016 approved steep increases in water and sewer rates in order to fund some $40 million in maintenance and upgrade work over the next 20 years. The rates, which went into effect in 2017, were expected at the time to increase rates by more than $200 annually.
Council on Monday approved the first reading of the ordinance amendment to remove the rate structure from the code by a vote of 6-0, with councilman Dean Bevacqua absent.