When Rapid City residents go to the ballot box Feb. 20, most voters will likely believe they’re deciding the fate of the city’s water rate increases.
But the nature of the vote is much murkier than the water that pours from the town's faucets.
In the past, the rates for water service were contained in city ordinance 6201, and to increase water rates the council needed to amend that ordinance. But this time around, city staff brought forward the rate increases in a different manner.
Instead of amending the rates in the existing ordinance, the rates were completely removed. The new, increased rates were then incorporated into a resolution with other various fees for city services. That resolution would raise city water rates by about 10 percent annually through 2022.
City staff has said the decision to remove the rates from the ordinance and insert the new rates into a resolution was in an effort to have one document with all city fees. Easy accessibility is important, city attorney Joel Landeen said, because an annual analysis of city fees and rates is often required to make sure the revenue generated covers the costs of providing said services.
“When you adopt rates, you understand that in most places annually you take a look at them and they are updated,” Landeen said in a Journal interview Wednesday. “So it’s not unusual, and this assertion that somehow it’s unusual for us to do that, or that it’s inappropriate, is absolutely false.”
During discussion of the matter in October, Tonchi Weaver of Citizens for Liberty opined that changing the rates through a resolution, which requires two public hearings as opposed to the four required of ordinances, was “kind of sneaky.”
Weaver spearheaded the effort to bring the rates hikes to a special election — which will cost the city about $60,000 — and she has been circulating pamphlets around the city asking residents to “Vote No!” on Feb. 20.
“People think they’re voting on the rates,” Landeen said. “[But] they’re actually voting on whether or not the ordinance moved them to resolution.”
In essence, a "yes" vote will support the council’s decision to set the water rates through a resolution and the new rates through 2022 will go into effect. A "no" vote will prevent the rates from being set in a resolution. As a result, the old rates will return to ordinance 6201 and the rates will remain at their current level, which hasn’t changed since 2013.
But as long as the council doesn’t attempt to set the increased rates in a resolution again — state law prohibits attempts at the action being referred for one year after the referral — they can increase the rates by simply amending ordinance 6201.
“They’re not voting on the rate,” Mayor Steve Allender said during his “Rapid City Progress Report” last week. “They’re voting on how the rate is structured in the resolution as opposed to a city ordinance. So if the vote is no, then that means that we won’t put the rate in a resolution. [It means] that we’ll put it in an ordinance, instead. And the people are going to be very disappointed.”
The question then is what the council will do if the rate increases are rejected. The politicized nature of the issue means any decision will be heavily scrutinized, Landeen said.
“What they can do legally and what they would do in reality are two different things,” he said.
As for how the city got into this situation, Allender and Landeen both credited past decisions by Mayor Alan Hanks and Sam Kooiker as integral pieces to puzzle.
“There’s a back story to this, and the back story goes back 30 years,” Allender said.
Water utility rate studies like the recently completed study that led to the present water rate increases were also commissioned and completed in 1998, 2003, and 2008, city spokesman Darrell Shoemaker said. But in the decade before 1998, the rates remained relatively flat. Then, during part of Hank’s tenure from 2007 to 2011, rate hikes were approved, but at lower levels than the rate study recommended.
Finally, the rates' inertia was exacerbated when, during Mayor Sam Kooiker’s term from 2011 to 2015, city staff was directed to forgo any rate studies, keeping the rates at the 2013 levels.
“You just incrementally get behind,” Landeen said of how the city ended up in its current predicament, citing the political consequences of such a rise as the likely culprit.
Weaver agreed with Landeen, in part. The timing of the rate hikes, she said, seemed to coincide with the lack of any mayoral or city council elections this summer, reducing city leadership’s concerns of the political ramifications of a hike.
But Allender said that if politics were the concern, inaction would be the result.
“We’ve got to adjust these rates,” he said. “The alternative is to keep our fingers crossed and hope we don’t have any issues with our current production, to use water production plants for decades after their predicted usable life and to just hurry up and retire before the next crew comes in and they get to deal with the issue."
Allender called that course of action irresponsible governance.
"It all comes down to this," he said. "What is the value of having clean, safe water in your homes?”