FORT WAYNE – City Utilities officials are about to start the second phase of their 18-year, $240 million plan to prevent raw sewage from overflowing into the rivers, and they are rolling out the proposed rate increases to pay for it.
Under the plan unveiled to reporters Monday, rates will rise each year for five years for a total increase of 49 percent.
“No rate increase is going to be easy,” said Kumar Menon, director of Fort Wayne City Utilities. “But even with these higher rates, we will still stay competitive in the region.”
Officials are proposing to increase sewer rates an average of $3.44 a month for the average household each of the five years, which Menon called “about a dime a day for our rivers.”
The city is under a consent decree with the federal government to nearly eliminate the times its sewer system overflows into the three rivers. Currently, this happens about 70 times a year, polluting the rivers with about 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage.
About 40 million gallons of sewage a day flows through the city's 1,200 miles of sewer pipes to the treatment plant on Dwenger Avenue.
But when it rains, stormwater overwhelms the system. The plant is being upgraded to treat 85 million gallons a day – but even then, millions of gallons of stormwater will need to be prevented from entering the system, and millions more of combined sewage will be stored in ponds for treatment later.
The consent decree was signed in 2007 and took effect in 2008 – the $240 million estimate is the cost in 2005 dollars; the city is expected to pay close to $400 million over the 18 years of the program.
The money will come from ratepayers: In May 2009, the City Council approved a five-year schedule of rate increases totaling 86 percent.
Through cost-savings, lower interest rates and efficiencies, Menon said, officials were able to stretch that five-year schedule over six years, giving ratepayers a year of relief before the next schedule of increases begins.
The average household pays about $35.29 a month for sewer service, officials said. The proposal calls for that to increase to $39.07 in 2015 and $41.92 in 2016. By 2019, it will have risen to $52.50.
Officials will host a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Citizens Square's Omni Room and another at 6:30 p.m. July 2 at the McMillen Park Community Center. They plan to schedule others, as well.
The proposal will be introduced to City Council on July 8, and a public hearing will be held July 22.
The higher rates, officials said, will pay for more sewer separation projects, more relief sewers and more treatment plant upgrades.But the largest expense will be the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel, known as 3PORT.
That project, which is expected to start design in the next few weeks and start construction in 2017, will bore a 5-mile tunnel from the north end of Foster Park to the treatment plant.
The tunnel will be about 150 feet down, through the bedrock, and will collect sewage from the core of the city. Construction could take up to eight years.
Feeding into the tunnel will be a massive sewer pipe through Foster Park, up to 7 feet in diameter. The tunnel will be between 12 and 16 feet in diameter. Paying for that and the other projects will require borrowing about $275 million.
“Pay as you go makes a lot of sense for short-lived assets,” Menon said. “But sewers last 75 to 100 years – it's not fair for just one generation to pay for them, and if you tried to do that, the rates would be astronomical. You couldn't afford it.”
He also noted that while the consent decree is an unfunded mandate from the federal government, it will also help clean up the city's rivers.
“This isn't just an investment in frivolous infrastructure,” Menon said. “This is important stuff.”