A new plan that spreads out the cost of Omaha's $2 billion sewer project is moving forward — and doesn't seem to be meeting much resistance from commercial users that would pay more.
The revised rates, drafted after months of talk from big manufacturers about laying off workers or leaving the city because of rate increases, dramatically scales back costs for large users.
Industrial customers that were looking at paying hundreds of thousands of dollars more are now in line for increases of tens of thousands of dollars. To make up the difference, smaller commercial sewer users will see rates go up by something like $5, $10, or up to $50 per month.
But before the rates are set, the proposal will be the subject of a public hearing at Tuesday's Omaha City Council meeting and then will go to a vote later this month.
City officials, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and an organization representing several big industrial users called the new plan a good compromise.
The proposal wouldn't change rates already approved for residential users. It would, however, assess rates for commercial and industrial users using a new measure: the size of water meters.
Marty Grate, the city's environmental services manager, said the size of a meter is an indicator of a user's potential to discharge into the system. “It's a capacity thing,” he said. “And if you look at the (sewer project) program, it's about sewer capacity.”
The rate schedule is divided into seven categories, from 5/8-inch meters to 4-inch meters.
Meters that are 6, 8 or 10 inches will be considered at the 4-inch meter size. Grate said a total of 20 meters fall into the over-4-inch category. Some of those serve the large industrial users that raised red flags about higher rates, but others belong to other types of users.
Grate said it's hard to put an exact number on the savings for the 19 largest industrial users — that were responsible for 5 percent of the project cost. But he said it's substantial because the cost will be distributed among the more than 13,000 other commercial customers in the system.
Julia Plucker, an attorney who represents the industrial user group called the Save Omaha Jobs Coalition, said she was also not sure of the exact savings.
“We can't come up with a dollar amount we think we're going to go down, but certainly we're going to go down substantially,” she said. “Which was the whole point of this.”
Plucker said some business leaders in the group plan to speak at the council's public hearing. They'll talk about the concerns they had about high rates keeping them from being competitive and will say this agreement is enough to prevent any “drastic measures.”
“We want to continue with the progress we've made,” Plucker said.
The city recently held two meetings to explain the system and the sewer overhaul — a mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — to customers. Grate said many people who showed up were from churches and nonprofits, and most were just looking for information.
He said one concern raised came from apartment managers, who wondered how the changes would affect them and what they could charge tenants for sewer and water use.
If the council approves the ordinance, it will set the rate plan through 2014. A subsequent plan, covering rates from 2015 to 2018, will probably be adopted sometime next year. Grate said if the new rate structure goes over well, he expects it to be incorporated into the later plan.
Grate said future increases should be less painful than the first set. Instead of 20 percent to 25 percent jumps, they are more likely to be on the order of 12 percent to 15 percent.
“For a long time we've said this rate cycle is the heavy lifting portion,” he said.
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