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Water rate increase will get hearing
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MONROE - The proposal for a 17 percent water rate increase is back in play.

The Monroe Common Council voted 6-3 Tuesday, Jan. 21, to request the Wisconsin Public Service Commission hold a public hearing for the rate increase.

Alders Michael Boyce, Tyler Schultz and Chris Beer voted against the motion.

Schultz said higher water rates will hurt the city's economic development. He took the lead in arguing for finding other means of reducing the expenditures of the water utility to stave off the rate increase. Those he mentioned included getting rid of the utility's $200,000 annual payment in lieu of taxes; not painting an aging water tower; and spreading out the timetable for replacing old, undersized water mains.

But Alderman Louis Armstrong said Monroe's water rates are actually in the lowest 20th percentile of the state. Businesses, he said, will look at that comparison.

Public Works Director Colin Simpson said the rehabilitation of the water tower near the hospital is being reviewed. Structurally, the tower is OK, he said, and could be used for another 10 years, but it needs paint on the outside and, possibly, inside. Simpson said the city may consider a hard bid package for that painting project and include a long-term maintenance contract, which could run as much as $300,000 total.

Simpson said the 17 percent rate increase would help fund a "more robust water main replacement" project.

The city's financial advising firm, Ehlers, projected that, by approaching the water main replacements more slowly, the required rate increase would remain at 17 percent for 2014, because there would be no change in operational expenses. But future rate increases could fall to 10 percent in 2016 and to 9 percent in 2018. Under Ehlers original rate study recommendations, a 17 percent increase is proposed again for 2016 and a 10 percent increase in 2018.

Alderman Tom Miller contended that the city should follow Ehlers' advice. He said that, though he doesn't like paying for increases, it makes no sense to pay for professional studies and not use the advice.

"We don't need to get further in the hole right now," he added.

Simpson, who took over as public works director in mid-November, noted that the city should start seeing some cost savings in the next 12 to 24 months as the wastewater and water utilities combine operation resources and offices and find efficiencies, including the elimination of extra vehicles in the fleets. These savings should offset the rate increases down the road, he added.

The city will request the PSC public hearing, but Simpson did not know when it would be held. The time and date of the PSC hearing will be publicized when it is set.

Generally the hearing takes place over the telephone during normal business hours. Water Utility Supervisor Mike Kennison expects the hearing will be held locally, most likely at the Monroe city hall.

Following the public hearing, the PSC will issue a rate order authorizing the new rate, after which the Common Council will have another chance to pass, reduce or turn down the authorized rate.