It looks like water is going to be more expensive — in multiple ways — for City of Columbia residents during the next year.
Columbia City Council on June 11 passed first reading on its 2020 budget, and it includes rate increases for water, sewer and stormwater services.
The city’s combined water and sewer rates are set for a 7 percent hike. This comes on the heels of a nearly 10 percent increase in those rates a year ago.
Currently, the average in-city residential water/sewer customer pays $60.28 per month. With the 7 percent increase, those rates would go to $64.54 per month.
Meanwhile, city residents’ stormwater fees also could be on the rise, with a hike of 6.7 percent proposed. That would take those fees from $12.54 per month to $13.32 per month. The city is in the midst of a $93 million upgrade to its aging stormwater infrastructure, in hopes of reducing the instances of flooding that seem to come any time the Capital City gets a fairly significant rain storm.
City Council has been somewhat inconsistent when it comes to hiking water/sewer rates. There were no increases approved by Council in the 2015 or 2017 budget years, but there were rate bumps in the 2016, 2018 and 2019 budgets, and now the 7 percent increase proposed for the 2020 budget, which goes into effect July 1.
Despite the herky-jerky pattern of increases, overall during the last decade water and sewer rates have been steadily rising in the Capital City. The average residential water/sewer bill in 2008 was $37.37 per month, compared to today’s $60.30 per month, a 62 percent increase in 11 years.
Columbia has poured money into upgrades to its water and wastewater systems in recent years. It is in the midst of complying with an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree to upgrade the sewer system, a yearslong initiative that could end up costing as much as $750 million. It also has embarked in the last couple years on replacing all the meters in the water system, a $60 million initiative.
The proposed increases to water and sewer bills put Columbia in the middle of the pack compared to other cities in South Carolina when it comes to rates. For instance, Columbia’s average monthly wastewater rate would be $41.86. That’s more expensive than Augusta ($41.19), Lexington (40.39) or Aiken ($25.15), but less costly than Rock Hill ($42.56), Charlotte ($49.04) or Charleston ($77.38).
At-large Councilman Howard Duvall has been a proponent of incrementally increasing water and sewer rates each year, particularly with the wealth of infrastructure upgrades the city is currently involved in. He thinks skipping years with rate increases is just delaying the inevitable, in a sense.
“I think the water and sewer utility is one that needs to go up slightly each year,” he says. “Operating [a water and sewer system] faces the same pressure a business owner faces, in that things are getting more expensive, and we have to keep up with those expenses in our water and sewer system to make sure it stays in good shape. Water and sewer is in really good shape now. We are doing some really good things, and keeping up with our consent order with the EPA.”
Longtime Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine agreed with Duvall that incremental yearly increases have become necessary, saying that delaying the hikes has only meant larger upticks in subsequent years.
"With the water and sewer infrastructure improvements we are trying to do, [this year's increase] is definitely necessary," Devine says. "I think the ratepayers will see benefits, for instance, when the [new] meters and remote meter readers are in place."
The new meter project was initially authorized by Council in 2017, and Devine says installation of them is expected to begin in July.