Rise In Water Rates Is 'Economically Untenable,' Task Force Hopes To Get Costs Under Control

May 10, 2017

Water rates in Kansas City, Missouri have soared in recent years, so the city created a task force to analyze those costs. The task force released its tentative recommendations Tuesday.
Credit Tim Samoff / Flickr - CC

Water rates in Kansas City, Missouri, have soared over the last several years. The average water bill has gone from $48 in 2009 to more than $100 today. 

That's due, in part, to infrastructure upgrades mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those mandatory upgrades were not accompanied by federal dollars, which means the cost fell to rate payers. 

Over the last year, a task force has been analyzing those costs and trying determine how to ease the burden on Kansas City residents. On Tuesday, it released tentative recommendations.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner chaired the task force. He says the rate increases have become "economically untenable" and maybe it’s time to re-negotiate with the EPA.

“Kind of changing some of the projects that we have that we were obligated to do all the way to seeing whether we might stretch out the obligation so instead of a 25 year program perhaps doing 35 to 40 years,” Wagner says.

Wagner says at the time Kansas City and the EPA were crafting the original agreement, there was a presumption that the median household income would rise by three percent each year, making rate hikes more affordable. That was back in 2008. The median household income has only risen .5 percent each year.

"Based on that wide swing, many of the assumptions of affordability that the EPA had never came to pass," Wagner says.   

Although Wagner says he’s confident the EPA would be open to discussion, he says those discussions could take a year or more and even then, rates aren’t going to go back to what they were before. 

Another suggestion by the task force is to cut down on bad debt from utility bills that are never collected.

Wager says this happens when renters move before paying their utility bills or change the name on their billing statement. The cost to manage that debt is paid by all rate payers. 

The task force recommends and advance payment policy, where new customers would pay for the first month's bill based on average water usage for that location before water service is turned on.

"Which would actually mean perhaps a two dollar difference in what people are paying today, just because we're able to recover some of that bad debt more easily," Wagner says. 

Bit Wagner says water will never be the cheap utility it used to be.

"The reality is that it's not (cheap) anymore because the cost of maintaining it is such that you have to have rates to help maintain that."

A full list of the task force's recommendations is available here.

KC Water says it will take a close look at the task force's recommendations and public feedback to determine what changes they can implement.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig.