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Water flowing, cash not so much

Cheney officials say way rate increases were implemented was needed to replenish funds


Last updated 9/25/2019 at 2:53pm

Cheney's latest water increase didn't sit well with resident Mike Mulholland – and the Harvest Bluff resident let the City Council know how he felt at their Sept. 10 meeting.

Mulholland told the council during citizen comments that he wanted a "clarification and adjustment" on his latest water bill, date Aug. 30. The issue, he said, was the bill charged him for his water usage between July 15 and Aug. 15 at the new rate imposed by the council on July 23 and effective Aug. 15.

At the July 23 meeting, the City Council authorized a rate change that featured a 10 cent increase in usage rates from $1.47 per 100 cubic feet (CF) of water - about 748 gallons - to $1.57/100 CF. The change also comes with a new, tiered water usage rate for residential customers who use 3,000 cubic feet or more per month. Customers exceeding this will be charged an additional $3.14 per 100 CF.

Mulholland said he understood the city's water rate increase, the second one in 2019, but believed it would only apply to water used after Aug. 15, not before. By applying it to previous use, the city also wasn't giving residents time to adjust their consumption patterns.

"I was shocked to get the bill," Mulholland said.

Finance Director Cindy Niemeier attempted to explain the billing, noting the city reads meters once a month and that raising rates on specific dates in the past caused confusion on bills where two different rates are shown.

In a Sept. 16 interview, City Administrator Mark Schuller had a more direct answer. Cheney's water fund needs the cash.

"Right now, our water fund is not in a good place," Schuller said, citing expenditures not only in operations but with the newly re-drilled Well 3 and unexpected repairs.

Schuller said the water fund ended August with a $383,000 deficit, and with mounting costs it was felt the city needed to start rebuilding it immediately - which meant making the Aug. 15 rate increase apply to water used prior to its implementation.

"We need some cash to keep everything up and going," Schuller said, adding the increase that went into effect on Jan. 15 also applied to water used prior to that date.

Earlier this year the city was hit with repairs on eight separate leaks found throughout its system, leaks that resulted in the city's two main pumps producing over 300 gallons per minute more than the typical 750 gpm needed during off-irrigation season months. The largest of these was at 5th and Elm streets, accounting for 200 gpm.

The leaks are symptoms of an aging system, one requiring more upgrades in the future than the city has funding to cover. The city has over 46 miles of water main piping, and undertakes replacement projects every year as funding allows.

"We have approximately 17 miles of water main that are considered undersized and/or of older material other than PVC that should be considered on the replacement list as certain sections of these mains are beginning to deteriorate," Public Works Director Todd Ableman said in an email.

The city relies heavily on Community Development Block Grant funding for infrastructure repairs. Ableman said this program has provided $1.9 million for water main replacement since 1999, enabling Cheney to replace 3.2 miles of water mains.

Today, those funds don't go as far as they did 20 years ago.

"The 1999 water main replacement costs were approximately $75 per lineal foot, and today costs are reaching $300 a lineal foot," Ableman said.

Schuller said such needs warranted the city's application of the water rate increases. Officials consulted with city attorney Stanley Schwartz prior to implementation, who concluded the city was on legal grounds with its process.

Schuller said he understands Mulholland's - and other users - concerns about water rates, especially large users.

"We could've done a better job communicating this, absolutely," he said. "We'll own this one. I'm not arguing his point at all. This is a substantial increase."

Mulholland also told the council that if they wanted the rate increase to apply to August usage, they should have made it effective Sept. 15. Schuller said that approach could have been part of the discussion.

"In this particular case, we didn't have that much choice," he said. "That's why we posed the question to Stan (Schwartz), how quickly can we implement this. We need the cash flow."

John McCallum can be reached at


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