The Bloomington City Council unanimously passed legislation Monday night that implemented a 54 percent increase in water utility rates for Bloomington residents.
The special session convened to discuss two amendments to the legislation that dealt with an upgrade and expansion to Bloomington’s water treatment plant and water lines running from the Lake Monroe reservoir into the city.
Bloomington City Council President Isabel Piedmont-Smith opened Monday evening’s discussion by expressing hope that the project would be a long-term solution to providing water to the people of Bloomington.
While the initial proposal called for a 47 percent rate increase to cover the $41 million project, Piedmont-Smith introduced an amendment to increase the rate another seven percent.
The difference, which would amount to about an extra dollar per user, will enable the city to begin paying off principal as well as interest on the loan they will take out to cover the project, resulting in almost $10 million in savings.
Bloomington has one seven-mile water line from the water treatment plant into the city.
The pipe is 43 years old, and though it seems to be in good condition, it is risky to rely on only a single water source for a community the size of Bloomington.
“I don’t think there is any rational argument to be relying on a single line,” councilman Dave Rollo said.
Members of the public and the business community expressed their support, and concerns, during a call for public comment on the measure.
Larry Jacobs, speaking for the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, supported the rate hike as a fiscally responsible action.
“The voice from the business community is that this makes more sense, so we do support the amendment,” he said.
Jim Tolan, a self-described “long-time citizen, long-time water user,” also took his turn at the microphone.
“I was a strong supporter of this two years ago, and I am equally strong now,” Tolan said. “I am retired, living on a fixed income, and I don’t mind paying my water bill.”
However, not everyone expressed consent. Andy Davis, who serves on Bloomington’s Commission on Sustainability, said he was there to share his reasons for being the only dissenting vote in the group’s support of the measure.
“I still think this is a problem that we can serve through conservation,” he told the panel.
Each council member in turn said this was a particularly difficult decision, but it came as a result of taking a deeper look into Bloomington’s welfare for future generations.
“I (originally) voted ‘no’ but decided to change my opinion because I think it is prudent not to burden the future,” Rollo said.
Councilman Steven Volan said the drastic rate hike is an issue that could have been avoided and should be avoided in the future.
Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan offered his support in the decision to go ahead with the projects and the additional rate hike.
“You are investing in future services that we don’t even know yet by being fiscally responsible,” he told the Bloomington City Council.“Long after we are gone, people aren’t going to remember who sat in this room and voted for this, and the fact that you’re doing it and the way that you are doing it — you can take great pride.”
The unanimous decision did not come without strong reservations, the strongest of which was the relationship between providing more water and instilling a culture of conservation.
Councilman Andy Ruff stated the irony that the department that reaps the benefits of water usage is also tasked with promoting conservation.
“I am concerned,” he said. “I really do think it potentially undermines being more conservative to want to generate revenues and conserve.”
Those paying their water bills will feel the impact.
“We have tried to find another way,” councilman Chris Sturbaum said. “We really ended up trusting the experts and the consultants. I apologize to those who are going to be paying more, but that is the price of water.”
For Piedmont-Smith, the increased rates are a concern that needs to be addressed.
“I have no doubt that a 54 percent rate increase is going to be very hard on many low-income users,” she said. “In that respect, it is going to make it very hard to vote in favor. We need to publicize the help that is available, because there will be people in the end who can’t conserve themselves out.”