Even though the turnout for Tuesday’s special election was disappointing, a message was sent to the Rapid City Council and Mayor Steve Allender — don’t change public policy procedures mid-stream while considering rate hikes.
If one accepts the Citizens for Liberty explanation for collecting signatures to challenge water rate hikes on the ballot, the election was about process. According to citizen watchdog Tonchi Weaver, the city was “kind of sneaky” in this case. She came to that conclusion after the City Council approved a series of rate hikes by resolution rather than ordinance, which meant two fewer public hearings were held and one vote was taken instead of two.
Mayor Allender, meanwhile, indicated in a statement sent Tuesday night to the media that other issues helped sink the rate hike. “Whether the defeat was aided by dishonest campaign material from the Citizens for Liberty, the impacts of the snowstorm or whether it is more a sign of low voter confidence, the result is the same,” the statement said.
There’s little doubt the council’s 9-1 vote to raise rates by more than 50 percent over five years provided a powerful incentive for those who signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot and for the relative few who voted against them Tuesday.
In the end, only 3,133 city residents — 7 percent of registered voters — bothered to participate, with 1,864 voting “no” and 1,269 voting “yes.” It seems everyone here loves to be an American except on Election Day, when it is apparently too much trouble for too many to exercise their right to vote. But that is another issue.
Allender said in his statement that water rates have not been raised since 2013, and the city still needs additional money from ratepayers “to adequately fund operation and maintenance expenses, necessary capital projects and build up our reserves. The vote doesn't change what needs to be done.”
The vote, however, does change how things should be done. First, it's clear the City Council needs to consider future water rate hikes as ordinances rather than resolutions. It didn't look good streamlining the process while raising rates by an average of around 10 percent for each of the next five years — from $30 a month to $46 for most residential users. Secondly, the city needs to consider smaller rate hikes spread over more years and then give the public ample opportunity to weigh in.
Otherwise, the city could be looking at another $60,000 special election over something as essential as clean water that is delivered to our homes every day.