Water rates, refunds and the kitchen sinkBy: Lincoln Mayor Stan Nader
In recent weeks, the level of angst regarding the city’s handling of water rates and refunds has increased to the point that it is a “simmering cauldron.”
Accusations have been flying that the members of City Council are a bunch of thieves, criminals and nefarious no-goods. I would ask that everyone take a deep breath, step back for a moment and consider the saying, “Before passing judgment, walk a mile in another man’s moccasins.”
There is no one walking around City Hall with $1,000 bills falling out of their pockets. The vast majority of the people employed at City Hall are hard-working and honest individuals. Have mistakes been made? Sure; nobody’s perfect. But the funds were earmarked for infrastructure improvements and also went to water the city’s parks, fill the pool, keep medians green and have running water at city facilities.
City Council members are elected to establish policies to guide the city, give direction to staff to implement those policies and establish the city’s budget and budget priorities. Policies, directives and priorities are implemented by the city manager and staff, with legal review by the city attorney, who works for and represents the council. The council’s policies and directives are to be strictly followed.
When it comes to the City Council setting water rates, the council relies on the recommendations of a water rate consultant, staff, the city manager, and city attorney as to the veracity of those rates. The council is painfully aware those recommendations in 2013 turned out to be faulty. The City Council has hired a special investigator to evaluate what happened and provide guidance regarding any legal actions that can be taken to remedy any wrongs that have been done.
When it comes to setting new water rates going forward, city staff is working in close consultation with LIFT members to establish rates that are fair to the citizens of Lincoln and provide the stability the city needs to operate and maintain the city’s water delivery system.
With regard to refunds, the council has agreed to refunds going back to February 2016 totaling approximately $3 million. Residents can now go the city’s website where there is a link to a calculator every resident can use to see what their refund should be. City staff is currently estimating that 70 percent of the city’s water users will not receive a refund at all because their water use did not exceed the volume in Tier 3. In other words, approximately 70 percent of the city’s ratepayers were actually billed less than the cost of service. Also, approximately 90 percent of the refunds are going to 10 percent of the water users.
Some have asked the council consider additional refunds and city staff is working on how we might make that happen. After reviewing city financial documents going back to 2013 and comparing them to projected fund balances in June 2018, it would appear there is about $4 million in revenues that could be used to make refunds. The council has already agreed to refund $3 million thus far, leaving approximately $1 million for additional refunds.
To do more than that, the city would need to tear pipes out of the ground from projects the city has done to improve our infrastructure. Other unpalatable options include laying off police officers and firefighters or closing the library and recreation department programs. Given that scenario, I think cooler heads would agree to be reasonable about what is being asked and work together on what is a sensible outcome for our community.
Stan Nader is the Lincoln mayor.