Belen council reconsidering utility rates


Belen city councilors mulled over three possible price scenarios to lower residential and commercial sewer rates at a utility rates workshop on Monday.

These alternatives, presented by the rates committee, come six months after the water, sewer and garbage rates increased. The rates aim to address the city's crumbling infrastructure in need of improvements.

"We're just talking about sewer (rates) right now because it doubled, which is why we decide to look at it first," said Roseann Peralta, the city's finance clerk and committee member.

The sewer rate options presented include decreasing the commodity rate from $3.60 to $3.16, increasing the minimum of gallons entailed in the base rate from 3,000 to 6,000 and increasing the commodity rate based on usage, with the highest rate assigned to higher users.

The three options provide a price break for residents, but still allow the city to accumulate funds for infrastructure improvements and replacements.

"We're trying to see what would be better for us and for the citizens," said Marcia Amaro, Belen water department collections supervisor.

Sewer rates increased in March from $20.61 to the base rate of $24.91 for up to 3,000 gallons used. After 3,001 gallons, residents are charged a commodity rate per each 1,000 gallons used on top of the base rate.

Resolving complaints from the increase have been widely debated amongst the committee and councilors since the increase was implemented.

Mayor Rudy Jaramillo said the perception, when the increases were presented, was that residents' bills were going to increase by $6, which they haven't.

"Everybody that I've talked to have said their bill has gone up over $100," Jaramillo said. "I think we need to do something."

But Leona Vigil, the city's clerk specialist and the rate committee chairwoman, said the sewer rates are affecting high users the most.

"The main purpose for the rates is to conserve," Vigil said.

In July, the rates commission suggested councilors revise sewer rates so as to charge commercial and multipurpose units based on their winter water usage, which is done with residential units. Winter water usage is a four-month average of the customer's usage from November through February.

Although this idea would save most businesses money, it was nixed since it would create a higher bill for laundromats, Vigil said at the workshop.

Instead of calculating the winter usage months, Councilor Jerah Cordova suggested to use the lowest usage months.

Steven Tomita, the city's planning and zoning director, suggested offering residents rebates to those who fix plumbing problems or decrease usage.

The rates chosen were the middle ground highlighted in a 2010 city-wide water and sewer utility rate study conducted by Trumm Engineering – MBI, Inc. The study found revenue generated from former water and sewer rates was not sufficient enough to "adequately maintain existing facilities or support any level of debt service to pay for needed improvements."

In other business:

• City officials and administrators shuffled around 35 of the city's priorities listed in their Infrastructure Capital Improvement Plan. Once finalized, the plan is submitted to local legislators for funding consideration during the 2013 legislative session.

The top five priorities outlined in the four-page document include the Camino del Llano storm drain pond improvements, redrilling of well No. 5, waste water sanitary collection improvements, storage tank replacement and arsenic removal.

Councilors added five additional priorities to the list, which were a landfill post closure study that needed to be redone; design for sidewalks, curbs and gutters on Camino del Llano and various other streets throughout the city; the North Main Street extension of a 10 inch sewer line headed north to Los Chavez, arsenic removal from the Cavco well in North Belen and an acid management plan, which is the inventory of city infrastructure and assets.

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