Water Fees Spur Council Debate

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What’s better — a law that doubles your water rates if you go over your limit or an administrative policy?

An administrative policy, the Payson Town Council decided recently.

A proposed revision of the town’s water infrastructure fees for new homes and businesses that had been slogging through routine revisions provoked a vigorous discussion and a change of course at a council meeting.

The town imposed the steep fees for water hookups several years ago to raise money for a $30-million pipeline to deliver water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir, on the theory that new water users should pay for the water supply needed for the town to continue growing.

The rewrite of the ordinance setting the fees for water infrastructure was originally intended to make it easier for the town to reduce the $7,500 per unit fee for affordable housing projects.

Revisions in the proposed ordinance as it went along featured increases in the fee for homes with more than 3,000 square feet and more than three bathrooms or a spa.

The provisions that prompted the discussion involved how the town would monitor water use once a reduced rate fee was granted, since homeowners can negotiate a reduced fee through various water-saving measures.

The current ordinance doesn’t specify all the details about either reducing or increasing the fee. It does provide generally for reductions in the fee, and says the town will monitor water use for two years to make sure it remains below projections. If water use rises too much, the full fee would be re-imposed.

The new ordinance would make the monitoring and review period open ended. Assistant Public Works Director and water czar Buzz Walker had handwritten some last-minute changes on the ordinance.

“I realized at a late date perhaps we should quantify some administrative procedures,” he explained, particularly when it came to raising the fees for larger homes.

Councilor Mike Vogel objected. “The more I read it, the less I like it. What’s the difference here — give it to me in English.”

Walker said the current code doesn’t provide the specifics to back up what the water department staff has been doing informally.

Vogel objected to language that seemed to give the water department authority to indefinitely monitor water use and impose penalties, like doubling water rates.

“We can be fairly assured at the beginning they did all the things they promised” to win a reduced fee, like using only native plants and high-efficiency washing machines. “But how do you tell what they’ll do a year from now?”

Walker said, “you can inspect them inside and out for all the years to come to see if they’re complying.”

Vogel replied “the way it’s currently done, you’re forcing them to be honest for two years, as opposed to just trusting them indefinitely because you know this will never be enforced this way. Under this proposal, you’re going to knock on the door six years later and say ‘I wanna see your bathrooms?’ Come on.”

Walker said, “the proposed ordinance will include provisions for excess water use we don’t have. Water bills would double in any month the use exceeds the anticipated use.”

Councilor Richard Croy added his objections. “You’re not going to go inspect someone’s house, even if they don’t have a side-by-side dryer.”

Vogel said the current system works just fine — noting he recently got a call from the water department alerting him to a jump in his water usage as a result of a broken pipe in the yard. “To add a law just to add something to the books, I’m not going to buy it.”

Mayor Kenny Evans then said, “we’re trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer… My farmer’s hat perspective is — is it working? Have we been sued or taken to court?”

“As one farmer to another, no sir,” said Walker.

Councilor Ed Blair came to Walker’s support. “I’m going to buy it because I know Buzz Walker is not going to be at the helm for another 35 years. I like to write it down so it’s very clear what the water development fees are.”

Croy said the discussion had wandered from the original purpose of the revision, which was to give low-income housing projects a break on the fee.

Blair said “my concern is we receive from the developer a fair water development fee, because that’s what’s going to build Blue Ridge.”

Evans then made an attempt to strike a compromise. “We all have a common goal here — that new development pays its fair share. On one hand, we say use your best judgment, but on the other we create this document to anticipate every contingency.”

He then made a motion directing Walker to scrap the ordinance revisions and come up with a written administrative policy that covered the same issues. Blair didn’t like that idea. “I’d rather have a four-page ordinance than a four-page administrative policy.”

Councilor Su Connell said, “this administrative policy would be a living, breathing policy. I value our staff and, to me, I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

The council voted 5-2 for the administrative policy approach. Croy and Blair voted no.

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