Daily Archives: Sept. 13, 2011

Wichita council members starting to take sides on water subsidy

Two Wichita City Council members indicated today that they want to begin eliminating a water rate differential that now has residential users subsidizing business customers.

One council member indicated support for keeping the subsidy in place, saying that a change could hurt business and damage the economy.

The council held its first public hearing today on plans to increase water rates for all customers next year.

While an increase is a near certainty, the key question is whether the council will raise rates the same across the board, or hike business rates more to start moving toward rate parity between residential and commercial users.

The public hearing on water rates followed a 3 1/2 hour public hearing on the Douglas Place development and drew only one actual member of the public, Kathy Dittmer of the Wichita Independent Neighborhoods Action Committee.

“We are concerned that the citizen is subsidizing the businesses in the area and worried about that continuing,” Dittmer said. “We really don’t need to be subsidizing that water use.”

She also called on the council to expand the public hearing process out into the community to give more people an opportunity to address the issue.

Two council members, Lavonta Williams and Janet Miller, indicated they agreed.

Miller told City Manager Robert Layton she would like to have city staff make a presentation on water rates to her district advisory board and at an upcoming district coffee gathering.

“As to the disparity on the rates… unless I learn something that would really change my mind, I definitely don’t think there is a very good reason for residential customers to be subsidizing commercial and industrial users.”

Williams requested city staff make a presentation at her district advisory board and at a district breakfast.

“I have always been one of those that does not want to subsidize the water on the backs of the residents, so I hope that you would give me some great information to take back to the community pertaining to just that fact,” Williams said.

Council member Michael O’Donnell signaled his sympathy for the business community’s argument, that addressing the subsidy issue now could hurt economic development. He urged Layton to meet with the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations about water rates.

“I’ve heard from a lot of business owners, because right now we can’t do anything that’s going to stop job growth,” O’Donnell said. “And I think by raising water rates, just like Westar (Energy) coming in raising utility rates as well, would be a huge problem, detriment to job creation stimulation, so we need to do whatever we can to keep those water rates down.”

At present, residential users pay about $2.05 more a month for their water than it costs to serve them, said Thomas Beckley of Raftelis Financial Consultants, a firm hired by the city to analyze the Water and Sewer departments’ costs and rates.

Business consumers as a group pay less than their cost of service, in effect shifting about $3.3 million a year in a subsidy from residential customers to commercial users.

To begin phasing out the disparity, the city staff is recommending increasing residential customer rates for water and sewer service combined by 2.6 to 3.9 percent depending on usage, with a larger 8.2 to 8.3 percent increase for businesses.

The city’s Water Utilities Advisory Committee β€” a business-dominated group appointed by Mayor Carl Brewer β€” is recommending that all customers’ rates be raised 5.9 percent for next year.

Skirting failure on clean-air standards, city takes action to start reducing smog

Even Kansas wind wasn’t enough to save Wichita from going over its smog limits this year.

And if the area doesn’t reduce its smog production, pronto, residents and businesses could get hit with some inconvenient and expensive federal air-quality mandates.

In a last-ditch effort to address that problem and help get the city back in compliance with air-quality standards, the City Council today approved spending $150,000 on a program to encourage residents and businesses to voluntarily reduce emissions.

The project will include three parts:

– Creating a system to alert residents on high ozone-level days. In addition to warning people to cut down on driving, burning and other smog-producing activities, the advisories can also guide when children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems should limit their outdoor activities.

– Setting up an outreach program for businesses to help them voluntarily reduce emissions.

– Launching a public-information campaign to raise community awareness and support for smog reduction.

The council voted unanimously to spend $30,000 of city money in matching funds, to obtain a $120,000 federal grant for the project.

Council member Janet Miller said she strongly supports the effort, although the grant-funded project alone won’t be enough to keep the area in compliance.

But it is a start, she said.

“We’ve got to keep taking steps to stay in attainment (of pollution standards) as long as possible,” she said. “Once we’re out of attainment, we’re going to have to do this (voluntary effort) and a whole lot more.”

City officials estimate that falling out of compliance with federal clean-air rules would trigger federal mandates costing local residents and businesses about $10 million.

To meet air-quality standards, the metropolitan area needs to keep the ozone level below .075 parts per million at three monitoring stations, in Peck, central Wichita and Sedgwick. Trouble ensues if the levels rise above .075 more than three times in a year.

This year, the metropolitan area exceeded the allowance at all three stations: Peck, .078; Wichita, .079 and Sedgwick, .080.

The Wichita area didn’t immediately go out of compliance with the federal rules only because the smog results are averaged over three years, said Kay Johnson, manager of environmental initiatives for the city.

But what it does mean is that the metro area will go out of compliance next year, unless residents and businesses reduce air pollution to about the levels they were in 2009, Johnson said.

“If we have another year like this year, it will be a big problem,” Johnson said.

If the smog levels don’t go down, the Environmental Protection Agency will probably step in and require mandatory smog-reduction measures, she said.

And, because most of the city’s big industrial companies have already substantially reduced their smog output, the corrective measures could include car inspection and repair requirements and stricter emission regulations on small businesses such as aircraft machine shops, auto body shops and dry cleaners.

She said agricultural burning in the Flint Hills, smog floating north from Oklahoma and emissions from local cars and industries have all contributed to the problem.

“We have to (reduce) at least one of these things,” Johnson said. And “All we can control is what we do ourselves.”

Finney appointed to board on preschool disabilities

Finney

Rep. Gail Finney has been appointed to serve on the Kansas Interagency Coordinating Council on Early Childhood Developmental Services, officials said today.

The board advises state government on issues involving preschool children at risk of developmental disabilities and delays.

The board also advises the state departments of education and health and environment on spending of federal funds received through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The board is made up of legislators, gubernatorial appointees and cabinet secretaries.

Finney, a Wichita Democrat, was appointed to the board by House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

β€œRep. Finney is a vital member of the Legislature and will use her experience to serve the Coordinating Council well,” Davis said in a statement. “I know that she will do what is in the best interest of all Kansans who rely and depend on the Kansas ICC.”

Finney has represented a northeast Wichita district since 2009.