After delaying the decision twice in recent months, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved 3 percent hikes for both sewer user and connection fees Tuesday.
Supervisors Steve Christy and Ally Miller cast the no votes in the two 3-2 decisions.
“I think we should spend more time looking at how we can cut costs versus raising rates,” Miller said. “It’s always easier to go back to the ratepayer and say we need more.”
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, echoing the wastewater advisory committee, had recommended a 4 percent user-fee hike, as well as a 2.6 percent connection-fee increase, which was based on the preliminary results of a soon-to-be completed rate study.
After the meeting, Supervisor Sharon Bronson said the revised figures were “an equitable solution.”
“We’re trying to do some balancing,” she added.
The new user fees and connection fees will bring in an extra $4.1 million and $450,000 respectively over the next fiscal year, according to county estimates. For the average residential user, the hike will mean an extra $1.12 per month. Both are set to go into effect June 1.
User fees, which are largely based on volume, are paid monthly and make up the vast majority of the wastewater department’s revenues. Connection fees are paid once on new developments, or when modifications require additional or larger water meters. Supervisor Richard Elías pushed to included a connection-fee hike so that so that developers share in the burden of rising utility costs.
“We need to pay off the debt that we have and we need to pay it off as quickly as possible, to save our ratepayers more increases into the future,” he said of the sizable annual debt service stemming from nearly $700 million in system improvements in recent years. “This is a smaller increase than the department was asking for.”
Shawn Cote, with the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and the only member of the public to speak on the matter, said his group was opposed to the connection fees.
“Over past several months we have seen a noticeable improvement in the housing market, and believe that maintaining all fee schedules only helps to continue that momentum,” he said.
Short of not approving the increase, Cote asked that the county “work with industry for process improvements or corresponding offsets,” a request granted by the board.
The handful of letters and calls received by the county on the user-fee hike expressed concern about potential financial impacts and the way fees are calculated.
County officials say that three 4 percent user-fee hikes are necessary to address rising costs and declining revenues due to conservation, as well as to prevent potentially serious financial consequences at the wastewater department, including dwindling cash reserves, increased borrowing costs and possible legal action from creditors. They were last raised in 2013, and connection fee calculations were last altered in 2012.
Christy previously said he’s not convinced that the “doom-and-gloom scenario” is imminent, but that if the situation deteriorates, “we can look at it.”