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Duluth water rates will rise next month

Duluth residents, businesses and industries will pay more for the water they use beginning July 1 -- and still more in January -- as a result of increases approved unanimously Wednesday by the Duluth Public Utilities Commission.

Water main break
Duluth senior engineering specialist Steve Goman marks a section of 17th Avenue East that was undermined by water from a broken water main in December. A large number of breaks and an aging system led the Duluth Public Utilities Commission to vote for a water rate increase to pay for repairs and upgrades. (File / News Tribune)

Duluth residents, businesses and industries will pay more for the water they use beginning July 1 -- and still more in January -- as a result of increases approved unanimously Wednesday by the Duluth Public Utilities Commission.

The increases, which could be overturned only by a supermajority of the City Council, vary from 8 percent to 20 percent in July, when a change in rate structure the commission approved last month takes effect. Another 6 percent increase for all users is scheduled for January.

For the typical residential customer using about 600 cubic feet of water a month, the monthly water bill will grow from $15.12 to $18.72 in July and to $19.86 in January.

A council veto would require the vote of at least six of the nine council members.

A 20-year capital improvements plan for the city's aging water infrastructure envisions annual rate increases through 2016. That would provide $4 million a year to spend on those projects by 2016, compared with $1.6 million this year. But only the increases for this year and 2013 were on the table on Wednesday.

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City officials say the money is needed, in part, because the city's 426 miles of water mains are deteriorating and will need to be replaced. The system has been averaging about 150 breaks a year.

Ironically, one of those breaks occurred on Wednesday on Stanford Avenue in the Duluth Heights neighborhood, causing many residents and businesses to cope with low water pressure in the Miller Hill, Airpark, Duluth Heights and Piedmont Heights areas.

Two councilors who also sit on the commission -- Patrick Boyle and Jennifer Julsrud -- voted for both increases. A third, Jim Stauber, was absent on Wednesday but has opposed the increases in the past. Joining Boyle and Julsrud in the 6-0 votes were Chairman Patrick Huston, Robert Prusak, Linda Sellner and John Bruggeman.

Another councilor, Jay Fosle, who formerly served on the commission, was the only member of the public to speak ahead of the commission's vote.

Fosle said the increases would pose a hardship on residents who are on fixed incomes and belie the city's attempts to be business-friendly. "I am concerned that if you continue with increases you may force some to leave," he said.

He also charged that the utilities staff allowed the infrastructure to crumble while investing in projects he called unnecessary, such as $10 million for an automated meter reader system. "Just think of how many water mains we could have replaced with $10 million," Fosle said.

To make sure money is spent wisely, the commission should use bonds to pay for specific projects, he said.

Julsrud disagreed. "Bonding is not the way to maintain the system year in and year out," she said.

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But bonding is a good way to pay for big-ticket items such as $5 million for a new roof on the West Duluth reservoir, which is planned for next year, she said. The commission needed to approve the 2013 rate increase to know the money will be available for $500,000 annual payments on that project, Julsrud said.

Boyle said he and other commissioners had received a resident's e-mail asking why the state couldn't pay for the improvements. But money isn't available at either the state or national levels, he said.

"It's become a very clear issue that we need to take the responsibility on the local level," Boyle said. "It's tough to raise rates -- we have to have some thick skin -- but in the long run I think the citizens understand what we need to do."

Contacted later, Fosle said there would be an attempt to veto the increase in the council, but he admitted it would be difficult to get the six votes needed.

Also contacted later, Julsrud said she believed the increases would withstand any veto attempt.

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