A good number of Bismarck residents are suffering sticker shock after receiving notice of higher water rates. About 7,600 residents got letters explaining the new rates adopted in November.
The letters warned that charges could go up more if residents do excessive lawn watering or fill swimming pools during peak use periods. Even City Commissioner Greg Zenker, who voted for the new rates, expressed surprise and regret over the amount of the increase. "I was completely caught off guard by how much this went up," Zenker said last week at a commission meeting. “We live in a climate where we have to endure winter for seven months. Some people, all they have is their yard. I'm having a hard time digesting this. This is bad."
The Tribune Editorial Board appreciates the concern of residents who have to pay more. Zenker, for example, owns an 11,000-square-foot lot and used 32 units of water last August. That cost him $165 compared to $245 he would have to pay this year. For residents on fixed incomes the higher monthly bills could take a bite out of their monthly household budgets. Maintaining lawns, gardens and trees for many is a labor of love. A day’s work outside often is capped by relaxation in a lawn chair as the evening sun sets.
At the same time, Bismarck has valid reasons for raising the rates. The city faces a projected shortfall in its water services. This year, water is expected to cost the city about $19 million, with a revenue flow of $18 million with the old rates. The numbers indicate Bismarck needs to do something. However, when the commission approved the new rates in November residents were gearing up for winter. The gardens and flowers were done and the need for watering the lawn was over. So residents might not have paid enough attention to the commission action. Zenker apparently didn’t realize how much the rates would go up.
People who visit Bismarck for the first time are pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the city. From spring until fall the neighborhoods are green and well maintained. The walking and bike paths give residents and visitors an opportunity to explore the city. The Missouri River and the activities associated with it add to Bismarck’s allure.
Water’s essential for maintaining this atmosphere. Some residents facing the higher water bills have written letters to the editor indicating they will have to let their lawns turn brown because they can’t afford the higher costs. The city counters with the argument that its monitoring system, Water Analytics, indicates many homes use more water than necessary. They have a formula on how much water is needed for different sizes of lawns. The letter sent to residents suggested that if they find ways to reduce water use their bills won’t be so high.
The Tribune believes the city should step back and put the higher rates on hold until the summer of 2020. Residents could use this summer to find ways to reduce water use. Basically it would be a summer to adjust. Mother Nature, of course, plays a role. If it’s a dry or wet summer it will factor into water use, but that will always be the case.
The Tribune understands the need to deal with the shortfall, but we believe a period of adjustment would be wise.