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Utility board gets pushback on fee increase proposal

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Columbus water and sewer officials are proposing substantial fee increases for various utility services.

The fees for most of those services, which include returned checks, winter disconnects and meter installations, haven’t been adjusted in about 20 years, utilities director Keith Reeves told city council members Tuesday night.

Because those rates have not increased over the years, what the city charges does not match the actual cost of the work, Reeves said.

Utility Service Board members have been talking for the past few months about how to remedy that, he said.

Board members evaluated what the department spends on services and looked at what 14 other utility systems charge before proposing fee increases and fixes to some inconsistencies in an existing fee ordinance.

The city’s utility service board had unanimously approved the increased fees but re-examined its proposal Thursday after receiving feedback from the mayor and city council.

Originally, the board’s recommendation called for steep increases across the board, including charges for a returned payment increasing from $20 to $40 and a nonpayment disconnect from $25 to $55.

But Mayor Kristen Brown and council members were concerned about the increases being put in place all at once.

Brown asked Reeves if the board had considered increasing the rates incrementally, especially since increases aren’t being offset by any decreases in water or sewer rates.

As proposed on Tuesday, Brown said, the increases were excessive.

Councilman Frank Miller said his biggest concern is the substantial increases for returned payments and disconnects.

Miller said those increases would be severe penalties for many people and that it’s “not the client’s fault that we didn’t raise (fees) along the way.”

The utility board made some changes Thursday to help alleviate those concerns, scaling back fee increases for returned payments and disconnects as some council members had requested. The rest of the proposal remained the same, including an increase from $218 to $1,100 to install a new meter pit.

But board member Cheryl McAvoy wanted the council to understand that the changes were made only to help proposal move forward more successfully.

“The board still believes ratepayers using the services should pay for the cost,” McAvoy said.

While the proposed increases would have made the fees a sizable penalty, they were designed not to make a profit but to stem losses the department currently experiences when customers fail to pay their bills or service must be disconnected, Reeves said.

But the smaller increases won’t make or break the department’s budget, Reeves said, since they represent around $40,000 in comparison to an $18 million budget.

The board now will make another proposal to the city council, Reeves said, which ultimately must be approved through two council readings and by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

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