Three Rivers City Commission adopts 2021-22 budget, water & sewer rate increases

Commissioner Chris Abel (left) speaks during Tuesday's Three Rivers City Commission meeting held at Three Rivers City Hall.

The Three Rivers City Commission Tuesday adopted its 2021-22 FY budget and user fee ordinance update, including the much discussed water and sewer rate increases, following two public hearings held at Three Rivers City Hall. The meeting marked the first time commissioners met in person this calendar year.

Mayor Tom Lowry and Commissioners Carolyn McNary, Pat Dane, Daryl Griffith, and Alison Haigh voted in favor of the proposed user fee ordinance update, while Commissioners Chris Abel and Clayton Lyczynski voted against, citing a desire to lower the initial increase for city water and sewer users by spreading out the rate hike over a number of years. The commission adopted the budget unanimously.

Before ultimately voting in favor of the increase, Lowry, Dane, McNary, and Griffith all voiced frustration over the unfunded mandate that will require all Michigan cities to replace their lead water lines over the course of the next few decades. No one on the commission took issue with the replacement process itself, as providing clean, safe drinking water is a priority but rather who’s expected to pay for it. Commissioners again asked Three Rivers residents to contact their representatives in the state legislature, and urge Rep. Steve Carra and Sen. Kim LaSata to take some of the burden of paying for the line replacements off the shoulders of citizens.

A message noting how much a citizen’s water bill has increased due to lead line replacement is expected to appear on each bill, and City Manager Joe Bippus said a letter explaining the cost of the long term lead pipe replacement project will be sent out with city tax bills. Bippus added the city will continue to look for grants and other funding to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

While part of the expected increases can be attributed to lead line replacement, local infrastructure projects will also factor into those additional costs. Commissioners discussed the possibility of delaying some scheduled projects in order to lower water and sewer rate increases but eventually came to the conclusion that they were necessary to maintaining the city’s infrastructure.

Griffith said it’s often easier to “kick the can down the road” instead of “biting the bullet and completing projects that need to be done,” but it’s in the best interest of the city to address the issue of lead lines and other infrastructure needs sooner rather than later.

“I, as a citizen, want the city to do those projects, and take care of infrastructure, and not wait until it’s falling apart to replace it,” Griffith said. “And I think you’ll see that with some of the comments you’ll get from people on the water system, people who complain about smell or color or pressure or many aspects of it. It’s that balancing act of trying to keep up with everything, and if you start taking away some of those projects that are keeping up with that, you’re degrading service. You’re going to save money, yes, but you’re also going to provide less service than you are right now. And that’s not something I want to do.”

McNary said if something can be done to lower the cost for citizens of Three Rivers “we should do it,” but she also understands “we need clean, good, healthy water,” a need “so many people take for granted.” Lowry said it’s human nature “to not want to vote for an increase,” and while he’s frustrated with the state and doesn’t want to increase water and sewer rates, he doesn’t think the city has a choice in the matter.

“We’re up here to be responsible guardians for the people’s taxes and monies, […] and so yeah, you can postpone some major jobs but if you do it for too many years, something major is gonna happen, and it’s going to cost much more than the increases you did not do, and I can’t live with that,” Lowry said.

“I don’t like the rates going up, I hate it. I keep calling these people, brainstorming, ‘what are we missing?’ But I don’t think we have missed anything at this point. If we don’t do it, we’re just kicking the can down the road. So either it’s gonna get worse down the road or you’re taking the load off your shoulders and letting the next commission make that hard decision, and I don’t think that’s right. (I think it’s our responsibility to make that decision), I think we have to.”

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.