The financial burden created by the City of Omaha's $2 billion-plus sewer overhaul probably isn't big enough to earn a break from the federal government — at least not yet.
That was the finding of a University of Cincinnati Economics Center researcher hired by the city to assess the massive, federally mandated project. In a report provided to city officials last month, the researcher concluded that while Omahans' utility bills will continue to go up over the next few years, the cost of the project should still place only a “medium” burden on residents and property owners.
City officials previously had said they would consider asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back down on its requirements or extend the project time line, which currently stretches to 2027.
But Marty Grate, the city's environmental services manager, said the independent review shows that the city probably doesn't have enough evidence of hardship to catch a break.
The study estimates the city's burden through 2018, the next period for which the city will set rates.
Later this month the City Council will consider a plan for rate increases for 2015 to 2018. Grate said increases in that period will be smaller than in recent years, but still notable: an average of 14 percent in 2015, 11 percent in 2016 and 8 percent each year in 2017 and 2018.
Beyond that, however, things get uncertain.
The study notes that as the project continues, the community could face much bigger hardships.
“In 2018, rates that will be 82 percent above 2013 levels are expected to create growing problems with delinquencies, shut-offs and non-payment,” the report says, adding that low-income households will face the most substantial challenges.
Grate said those warnings indicate that the city should keep talking to federal officials about potential breaks in the future.
“What this study in essence signals is that the community probably needs to go through the proposed (rate increases) through 2018, but it's not too soon to talk to regulatory authorities and say that we see problems looming beyond 2018,” he said.
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