Fruita confronts another rate hike for sewer plant
When Warren Walcher opened an Express Care lube center and car wash in Fruita seven years ago, his monthly sewer bill was around $80 a month.
Walcher’s bill has grown to $380 a month as Fruita municipal leaders, faced with a federal mandate to build a new sewer treatment plant or be slapped with heavy fines, have instituted gradual rate increases on the city’s roughly 150 commercial accounts and 4,300 residential accounts. The city wants to generate the revenue necessary to pay for the construction and operation of the plant.
The city now is considering another rate hike and changing the way it bills businesses from a formula-based system to one based on actual consumption of water. A majority of the city’s businesses would see no change or even a decline in their bills, but Walcher says his bill would soar to nearly $700 a month — almost double what he’s paying now.
He and a handful of the city’s other greatest consumers of water have lodged concerns with the city, claiming the change shifts too much of the burden to subsidize the sewer plant to them, could shut them down and chase prospective businesses away from Fruita.
“If we start losing business out there, pretty soon it’s going to affect all of us,” Walcher said.
After holding public meetings in March and April about the proposed changes, the City Council could vote tonight on a rate increase. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, 325 E. Aspen Ave.
City Manager Clint Kinney said the city has raised its sewer rate from $8 a month to the current $35 a month in the past few years to pay for the roughly $28 million sewer plant, which should be completed by the end of the year.
He said the rates are based on a formula that, for commercial customers, takes into account the number of chairs in a restaurant, the number of rooms in a motel and the number of bays in a car wash. Residential customers are charged a flat rate based on the total number of units.
“We’re looking at the most equitable, most realistic way to measure the demand commercial users create on the wastewater system,” Kinney said when asked why the city is changing the billing system.
The council will consider a number of alternatives that could bump up the base rate for commercial customers anywhere from $4 to $8.15 a month, plus tack on an additional charge for each 1,000 gallons of water used over 5,000 gallons.
Under an alternative that would charge a $39 base rate plus $7.71 a month for each 1,000 gallons over 5,000 gallons, 63 percent of the businesses would see their bills drop or remain the same, according to the city.
Although Walcher and other large water users make up the minority of businesses that would experience a bill hike, some say the increase would simply be too steep.
During a meeting last month, Wild Cat Car Wash owner Keith Hogstad told council members his annual bill could nearly quadruple, from $7,161 to $25,486.
Hogstad couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
Walcher said he doesn’t believe the rate increase is fair, partly because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the water his business is flushing into the sewer system. He noted he installed a $10,000 treatment system at Express Care to help clean the water before it’s discharged into the sewer system.
“It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out what will happen if I have to increase my prices,” he said, claiming that not only might people drive elsewhere to wash their car for less, but they might shop and eat outside of Fruita, too.
Residents also are expected to see a $4-a-month hike, although the city isn’t yet contemplating a billing structure change similar to commercial customers that would charge homeowners for the actual amount of water they use, Kinney said.
Residential customers account for about 80 percent of the wastewater that flows into the city’s treatment plant.