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A final decision on whether to raise the price of water usage in Rapid City will be made by Rapid Citians in two months.

At Monday night’s Rapid City Council meeting, a special election was set for Feb. 20, after a petition to refer the rate hikes for city water to a public vote was verified by the city’s finance office. Increases in the cost of wastewater services are not part of the petition and will go into effect Jan. 1.

Led by Tonchi Weaver of Citizens for Liberty and carried out by a handful of other volunteers, the petition circulation efforts resulted in 2,387 validated signatures. Signatures from 5 percent of registered Rapid City voters, or 2,249 signatures, were required.

On Nov. 6, the council approved rate increases for city water and wastewater services that would cause the water bill of single-family residence to rise between 9 and 10 percent in 2018 compared with 2017. From 2019 through 2022, the rates would increase about 8.5 percent each year. Overall, an average Rapid City household’s water bill would rise by 43 percent over the next five years.

Currently, a single-family residence pays an average of $30.72 per month for city water, explained Tom Gould of HDR Engineering — the consulting firm hired by the city to study the utility and current rate structure — in November. Those payments were calculated based on an average use of 5,600 gallons of clean water per month. Assuming the usage was the same in 2018, Gould said that rate would rise to $33.74 per month. By 2022, the water bill would be $46.66. The current rates have not increased since 2012.

“It was an interesting experience,” Weaver said on Monday of the petition circulation efforts, saying she and others would begin posting information on the matter on reformrapidcity.com in the near future.

“I myself visited with hundreds of people. They came from all areas of the city. They have a problem with moving to a resolution process as opposed to an ordinance process. We don’t think it’s a very ethical way to operate. They (the people) feel oppressed, betrayed, they feel helpless to do anything about it and they were eager to sign the petitions because at last it seemed they could do something about it.”

In November, Weaver expressed dismay at the city’s decision to put the city’s updated rates and fees into a resolution instead of an ordinance, given the lower public hearing and council approval requirements.

Resolutions require two public hearings — one before the Legal and Finance Committee and another before the full Rapid City Council — while ordinances require two public hearings before the committee and two before the council.

The council’s “Policies and Procedures” handbook labels resolutions as “any determination, decision or direction of the governing body of a municipality of a special or temporary character ... .”

“Water utilities are not special, out of the ordinary or temporary, and I think that is actually kind of sneaky to want to do these rate adjustments through resolutions,” Weaver said at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting.

At that meeting, city attorney Joel Landeen conceded that part of the reason was to make it easier to change rates, with Alderman John Roberts opining that the difficulty of changing ordinances may have prevented the water rates from rising, which hasn’t occurred since January 2013.

In the past, Public Works Department Director Dale Tech has called the city’s Mountain View water treatment facility “functionally obsolete” and stated it will need to be replaced soon, requiring that the city begin to build up its reserves in case of an emergency or ahead of any project to build a new facility. The facility was built in the 1960s and finding replacement parts when something breaks is nearly impossible, Tech has said.

City Operations Management Engineer Dan Coons has also stated that the rate hikes are meant to cover the increased operating and maintenance costs associated with the city services and to raise the city’s water reserve and wastewater reserve funds. The city hopes to raise the water fund to $6.6 million and the wastewater fund to $4.5 million by 2022. Currently, they are at about $2 million and $159,000.

With the special election now looming, the water rate hikes will not go into effect on Jan. 1, as was originally planned. However, since the city’s wastewater fees are not addressed in the petition, they will become effective Jan.1.

When asked to estimate the cost of the special election, Finance Department Director Pauline Sumption balked at giving a figure before offering that the last special election in March 2015, related to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, cost the city about $60,000.

In other action, the council:

• Authorized the city to sign a joint cooperative agreement with Western Dakota Technical Institute after the Rapid City Police Department received a onetime $75,000 microgrant from the Department of Justice to implement the Akicita program, a Native American specific recruitment program. WDTI will administer the program, using the funds to hire one staff member who will recruit and retain law enforcement students with an eye toward Native American graduates. WDTI has agreed to begin the program in early 2018, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris said, adding that more details on the initiative will likely be made public in January.

• Acknowledged the city’s sales tax collections for the month of October, which came in at $2,153,233, a 7.5 percent increase compared with collections in October 2016. For the first 10 months of 2017, collections are up 2.4 percent compared with 2016, at $21,080,478.

• Approved harvesting, i.e. shooting and collecting, 150 deer in wooded areas like Skyline Drive and western Rapid City, near the precipice of the Black Hills, after the city’s annual deer trend survey was completed in October. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department recommended harvesting 150 deer after reviewing the city’s deer trend survey results. The meat will be processed and donated to Feeding South Dakota. 

• Authorized an agreement between the city and Rapid City Summer Nights that would allow Summer Nights to operate in downtown Rapid City’s right of way from 2018 to 2022. 

• Authorized the city to enter into an agreement with the Community Health Center of the Black Hills to contribute $523,406 from the city’s Vision Fund toward CHCBH’s new consolidated facility, of which a 3,000-square-foot shell space is currently unfinished. 

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Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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City Reporter

City reporter for the Rapid City Journal.