Waukesha Freeman
Apr 20, 2018
Dave Fidlin

Waukesha —  Although the project is years off on the horizon, residents served by the Waukesha Water Utility could begin paying for a specific project related to the Lake Michigan diversion as soon as this June.

Utility officials discussed the planned rate increase with members of the Waukesha Water Commission at a meeting Thursday. It will be the first of multiple rate increases in the years ahead to fund the series of improvements.

The proposal, which the committee advanced with a favorable recommendation, called for adding a 62-cent return flow volume charge for each 1,000 gallons consumed, beginning June 1.

The added line item on utility users’ bills is expected to infuse $700,000 of rate revenue into the budget for the remaining seven months of the year. Proceeds are aimed at funding the return flow capital project, which will cost an estimated $125.6 million.

Although construction on the 15-mile pipeline is not expected to begin until 2020, utility officials are in the early stages of designing and permitting the return flow infrastructure.

Early this month, the utility took out $16.6 million in anticipation notes to fund the improvements.

“The debt instrument comes in the form of a draw bond, which acts very much like an equity loan,” Joe Ciurro, administrative services manager, wrote in a memo, explaining the notes. “The city will incur and pay for return flow project expenses and then, be reimbursed by (the notes’) proceeds.”

Throughout the Thursday meeting, utility staffers said the intent is to implement rate increases in a series of gradual steps so users are not met with a sizable wallop all at once.

Dan Duchniak, Waukesha Water Utility general manager, also said transparency is a goal in his department.

Also discussed was a proposal to reconfigure the format of the utility’s water and wastewater bills moving forward. A separate line item on the return flow charges will be added to bills once the fee is enforced.

But the transparency efforts also come with a cost. The utility is planning to contract with an outside firm, Advanced Utility Systems, at a cost of up to $30,000 to make changes to the billing format.

“I’m hoping the project comes in below the amount,” Ciurro said of the cost of changing the bills, which also had the committee’s recommendation.

Utility staffers also had a broader discussion with the committee on the large-scale diversion project, including the desired route of pumping Lake Michigan water into Waukesha.

Three agencies will have to sign off on the utility’s request for the diversion route, which could run from 60th Street and Howard Avenue in Milwaukee to the utility’s water distribution system at Minooka Park.

Before the plan is set in stone, the Public Service Commission, state Department of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers must sign off on the diversion route.

Duchniak also indicated he is compiling water and sewer utility rates in surrounding communities so residents know where Waukesha stands with rate fees compared to its neighbors.

While talk in recent years has revealed utility rates could eventually triple at the conclusion of the major project, Duchniak said the compilation he is assembling could clear up confusion.

“With as big of a project as we have going on, we still think we’ll be competitive with our rates,” Duchniak said.

The Water Commission’s favorable recommendations for the return flow charge and billing changes will go before the Public Works Committee soon for additional review before landing at the Common Council for final action.

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