Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ogden's Rising Utility Rates

One geek's analysis, with a constructive suggestion at the end

by Dan Schroeder

On June 2, 2009, the Ogden City Council voted to raise sewer rates by another $3.92 per month. Being a numbers guy, I took this opportunity to try to put this increase into context and help everyone understand whether or not our utility rates are too high.

First I dug up my own file of utility bills, going back to when I bought my house a little over ten years ago. I added up the bills for each calendar year, adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, and plotted it as a bar graph:


So, for example, my total city utility bill (water, sewer, storm water, and refuse) increased by 50%, over and above inflation, between 1999 and 2008. Much of that overall increase came from a sharp increase in sewer rates that began in 2006 and has continued each year since then. The graph doesn't yet show the newly approved sewer rate increase, which will add another 8% (compounded) to the total.

I should explain that my utility rates are about as low as they can be for an Ogden homeowner. I use very little water (usually less than 1000 gallons per month), and I've opted for the smaller, cheaper, trash barrel. For sewer and storm water I pay the same flat rate as nearly everyone else. (Ogden's utility rate schedule is linked here.)

On the graph I've also included my property tax payments to Ogden City, which have increased a little faster than inflation over this time period. Notice that the city has always collected more from me in utility payments than in property taxes--and the relative share from utility payments is growing.

Mayor Godfrey periodically brags that he has lowered Ogden's property taxes since he took office in 2000. Perhaps that's true in some abstract mathematical sense, but it's simply a fact that my property tax has increased by 11%, above inflation, since 1999. In any case, unless you live in a very expensive home while using relatively little water, any change in your Ogden City property tax has been small compared to the increase in your city utility bills.

After I presented these facts to the city council at its meeting on June 2, the mayor fired back. He said he found it "ironic" that an environmentalist such as I would complain about sewer rates when the cause of rising sewer rates is "outrageous" federal environmental laws that put stringent requirements on discharge of pollutants such as copper.

My initial response regarding copper discharge standards is printed in the news article linked above. The article also points out that the current rate increase is to fund a major increase in the sewage treatment plant's capacity--not to improve the quality of the discharged water. But one of the anonymous comments under that article mentioned utility rates in Salt Lake City. Time for more digging.

It's easy to look up Salt Lake City's rates for utilities and refuse collection. Based on these rate schedules, I determined that if I lived in Salt Lake City I would pay the following monthly amounts:

Water: $9.75
Sewer: $5.60
Storm water: $3.00
Refuse: $8.25
Total: $26.60

For comparison, my total monthly bill in Ogden is now a little over $51.00. In the graph above, the rightmost column shows my hypothetical Salt Lake City utility payments for 2008. I also looked up Salt Lake City's property tax rate, which is 6% higher than Ogden's, and included the hypothetical SLC property tax for a house of the same assessed value as mine. (You might object that my house would be worth more if it were located in a typical SLC neighborhood. True enough, but if we include that effect we should also factor in SLC's higher average wages, which enable people to pay higher housing prices...)

All four components of SLC's utility bills are lower (at least for a customer like me) than Ogden's. But the biggest difference by far is in the sewer rates: $5.60 compared to $18.49 (and rising). Why?

The explanation has nothing to do with onerous environmental regulations, as Mayor Godfrey would have us believe. Salt Lake City is subject to the same federal regulations as Ogden.

Part of the explanation may be that SLC's sewer system is run more efficiently, or that their customers aren't being forced to subsidize a major expansion to accommodate growth on the suburban fringe. Someone should look into these possibilities.

Much of the difference, however, is simply because Ogden charges a flat rate for being hooked into the sewer system, while Salt Lake's sewer rates are based on average winter-season water use. (They ignore summer use because irrigation water doesn't go into the sewer system.) So in Salt Lake, if you flush your toilet fewer times, you pay less on your sewer bill. This only seems fair. And for a customer like me who uses very little water, the benefit is substantial.

Unless you believe in socialism, there's no reason why Ogden shouldn't also adopt a sewer rate schedule that's based on winter water use. Besides being more fair, this would give everyone an incentive to use less water--and reduce the need for even more upgrades to our water and sewer systems in the future. I therefore suggest that the city council and administration begin working now to revise our sewer rates in this way.

27 comments:

Ozboy said...

Thanks Dan. Ogden citizens are just damn lucky that you live here. Very few of us would be able to review this sort of analysis other wise.

It is just this sort of thing that has me thinking about selling out of my Ogden holdings. I still have one property there after selling two others recently. Any one interested in a nice brick bungalow near Harrison - mid town?

Curmudgeon said...

Thanks, Dan. I had no idea Ogden rates were so out of line with what they pay in SLC for the same services. Wonder if the paper will pick up on this? Should.

althepal said...

Anybody who lives in Ogden under the iron hand of the little Harrisville twit should carefully read and digest this.

There are those among the Godfreyites who boast that Ogden is 'much better' since the big spending Godfrey took over the mayoral reins. we're frequently mentioned in east coast puff pieces, after all...

The real evidence however, from the viewpoint of the people who pay the bills, i.e, the average Ogden city taxpayer/lumpencitizen, doesn't conform with that at all.

Thanks for the eye-opener Dan.

It's a view that we all need to ponder.

Danny said...

Tax and spend. Money funneled to cronies and a small amount kicked back to Godfrey. Dan Schroeder and the WCF do the research and reporting that the local paper won't even print, much less obtain.

Ogden is the place for high taxes and high fees. What else is new?

Here's the irony. It's people like Godfrey, their incompetence and corruption, that have held down Ogden's economy. And strangely, that's why Ogden is such a nice place to live (at least if your money comes from outside the city.) It's slower here. All of our undeveloped land hasn't been raped yet.

And with local business struggling and failing under Godfrey's corruption, incompetence, and extortion, that will continue.

Godfreyism helps insure that we will remain a backwater, for those who like that.

Now, if we can just deal with the attendant violent crime. You take the good with the bad.

Dorothy Littrell said...

The increase in sewer fees is because of the Central Weber Sewer District's massive debt that was incurred several years ago when farmers in the West part of the county who were very happy with their septic tanks were forced against their will to become annexed to the Sewer District.

Mayor Matthew Godfrey along with other city mayors in Weber County has been on the Central Weber Sewer District governing board for those years and has headed it up for most of that time.

It is my understanding that the farmers who did not want to participate have refused to hook up to the sewer lines that were installed in spite of their opposition to the program.

One civic minded citizen who knows the whole story is Chuck Eddy who runs the Citizen's Advocate organization that has been foremost in attending meetings and trying to alert citizens to the huge amount of bond debt being incurred without proper disclosure to the taxpaying public.

Chuck has been warning for years of the financial crisis compounding and it looks like now is the time that crisis has really got a head of steam.

This is the old story of the growing takeover of rural areas without proper disclosure and planning. It is the age old procedure of forcing programs down property owners' throats when the property owners do not want the expansion.

It is another example of Mayor Godfrey's participation in programs that are not very popular with taxpayers but which the Mayor helps install regardless.

Anyone who wants to learn the full true story should get in touch with Chuck Eddy. He is in the phone book.

RudiZink said...

No, Dorothy.

Chuck Eddy is NOT in the book.

If you have his number, please pass it on via private email.

I'd very much like to interview him re these issues.

Thanks.

mrs. oldtimer said...

Dorothy,

I want to add that Chuck Eddy has spent years of his life in Weber County alerting local residents of problems with the Second District Court system and the Central Weber Sewer District growing debt and many other pertinent issues.

Chuck helps people who can not afford an attorney go to court to represent themselves in many varied legal battles. And Chuck does this even though he has been almost blind for years.

I know that Chuck and you representing the Citizens Advocate are the reason that IHC is no longer turning over delinquent accounts to attorneys who were gouging their patients with higher monthly interest charges than what the monthly payment was that the patient was trying to make.

You two saved hundreds of people who were trying to pay their hospital costs get a fair shake because now IHC provides a form for people who need financial aid. You can fill out the form when you are admitted. I know because I had to ask for one.

Curious 1 said...

Off thread but relevant in that the Standard Examiner only recieving one award from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists, in a Tribune article.

Utah headliners - The winners

The SL Tribune is first in newspapers followed by the Deseret News. I found it interesting that the only mention of the Standard was for an editorial on Utah's Senate Dysfunction by Doug Gibson.

The Salt Lake Weekly, Tooele Transcript-Bulletin, Uintah Basin Standard plus other smaller regional papers were mentioned numerous times for their writing and reporting skills.

Unfortunatly we only have the Standard Examiner which doesn't seem to have garned many awards from professional journalists. This should be a wake up call for the paper to start investigative reporting, and investing in reporters that follow up on stats.

For a newspaper in a city Ogden's size to garner only one award for a years worth of reporting is shameful and I hope the editors take notice that the rest of the state is watching.

carl jay said...

Haven't you noticed that your Standard issue is getting smaller and smaller-

Methinks they are having financial pangs but no wonder because why should I subscribe to them when the crossword puzzle is the only thing that is interesting-

athenus said...

Back to the topic:

Ogden is helping to pay off the Central Weber District's bonds along with all other Weber County cities - the sewer expansion was ill conceived and way underfunded from the beginning.

Why not get an interview with Mayor Matthew Godfrey for his version of the debt?

Better yet - why not get an interview with County Commissioner Dearden on his version of the debt? He is supposed to be a good Republican and had better be able to answer questions if he wants my vote for reelection.

Mrs. Hales said...

Better yet!

Turn the Central Weber District's minutes and financials over to Dan Schroeder for his analysis.

I remember hearing that their attorney from Salt Lake was getting really big bucks for attending every meeting. And also that not all minutes were complete.

At that time the only outsider showing up to a meeting was a representative from the Citizens' Advocate name of Bob. He wasn't allowed to ask questions of the Board.

ex-Ogdenite said...

These comments about the Central Weber Sewer meetings remind me of how the Ogden City Council meetings are held.

Do not give a citizen time to make a complete statement.

I never knew there was a difference until I moved to Layton.

George K said...

In the front page article, “Polluted Ogden River nothing that $4 million-plus can’t fix” by Scott Schwebke in today’s Standard Examiner there is more depressing news for Ogden taxpayers. “Mayor Matthew Godfrey said obtaining federal stimulus money to help fund the river rehabilitation initiative is vital to the city’s future. ‘It’s very critical for that section of the river to be cleaned up for that project (Renaissance Village and other commercial redevelopment) to succeed,’ he said.
“The city has allocated about $50,000. from its storm sewer bond account to pay RiverRestoration.org,, a Glenwood Springs, Colo-based engineering firm, for a study as part of its application for stimulus funding, Patterson said. The study indicates it would likely cost about $7.2 million to complete the project. ‘In addition to $4 million in federal stimulus funds, the study calls for the city to contribute about $1.9 million, mostly through in-kind services, and property owners to pay $1.3 million, said Caroline Bradford, project manager for River- Restoration.org.
Here we go again! I wonder if the $50,000. was in the ordinance that the Council approved and in the sewer bond application, or does Godfrey plan to misappropriate those funds as he has done with the water bond and CIP funds for the 46th Street pipeline and water tanks to the 36th St. water tank project?
He has misappropriated funds in order to assist with the condo/hotel development and the gondola upon which he has never given up. If you don’t believe me, ask him why the City and Council did have joint goals for Ogden last year – it was because the Council would not agree to the urban gondola!
I believe the Council is not aware of his plans to have the City pay $1.9 million in in-kind services and Ogden property owners (sounds like a property tax increase) pay $1.3 million to fund the river clean-up for Gadi Leshem’s river project.
Ogden needs its own “Tea Party!” Because we have “Taxation without Representation!”

Brett said...

“Mayor Matthew Godfrey said obtaining federal stimulus money to help fund the river rehabilitation initiative is vital to the city’s future.” How asinine is that statement? For a supposed genius, Godfrey sure says some stupid things and does some pretty dumb things!

George K said...

I'm sorry. I had not read the previous thread when I posted the above omments. I did not know that Dan S. and others had commented on the SE article prior to my post. I apologize. Keep up the great comments about the water and sewer costs.

Southsider said...

FYI: current bill in Washington Terrace (with 4,000 gal water minimum):

Water 16.00
Sewer 13.00
Storm Drain 5.00
Garbage 14.88
Total 48.88

Dan S. said...

Southsider,

Are you saying that in Wash Terrace you get charged a flat rate of $16 for any amount of water up to 4000 gallons? That's pretty outrageous, especially in a desert.

Also, what are your options for garbage service? Ogden offers 60 and 90 gallon barrels; SLC also offers a 40 gallon barrel (which would be plenty for me). Both Ogden and SLC include recycling in the garbage fee.

Southsider said...

Yep, $16 for any usage up to 4,000, $4 per 1,000 above that.

We only have one size barrel (don't know the size) but some households have two, each at $14.88. We also have a similar sized recycle container with every other week pickup included in that first $14.88.

blackrulon said...

It seems that the mayor believes that excessive water/sewer/trash costs are just a small price to be charged for the privilege of living near a urban gondola.

Dan S. said...

Southsider,

In that case, I would say that Washington Terrace is a socialist state in which the government has no interest in charging people for what they actually use. You should ask your city council to reform the billing system without delay.

tom said...

Farmington's utility rates:

Water minimum (3000 Gal) $13.50
Sewer $20.00
Garbage $12.50
Additional Can $9.75
Storm Water Drainage $7.00

Dan S. said...

Tom,

Aside from the additional garbage can, is there anything a Farmington resident (in a single-family home) could do to lower these rates? It looks like they're all flat rates, regardless of usage. What about storm water? Is that for a typical small residential lot or a larger parcel?

Tom said...

Dan

I was wrong above on the Farmington rates.

The initial water rate of $13.50 is for up to 5,000 gallons per month, not 3,000 as I reported.

The water overages are:

$1.65 per thousand gallons up to
13,000 gal total useage,
$1.95 per thousand up to 24,000, $2.20 per thousand up to 49,000, $2.40 per thousand for anything above that amount.

The $7.00 storm drain fee is for any residential regardless of size of lot. There are higher rates for commercial properties.

I do not pay the garbage can fee because I don't use the city's cans. I just bundle my trash up, haul it to Ogden after midnight and throw it in Mayor Godfrey's yard. It feels pretty good to do that, I highly recommend it to everyone. (Actually I have a dumpster from a private company on my property so I don't use the city garbage service and they are nice enough to not charge me anyway)

Speaking of "nice enough", it is really amazing how much difference there is in the city administration here in the democratic republic of Farmington compared to what you folks in the totalitarian state of Ogden have to endure. Here we have a smoothly functioning government made up of a fairly elected mayor and a co-equal city council. All are friendly, responsive and most of all very honest with the citizens, unlike the rule by disingenuous despot you all suffer from. Pretty amazing considering both cities operate under the same state laws.

Dan S. said...

Tom,

Nevertheless, the Democratic Republic of Farmington is essentially a communist state, in which everyone pays the same utility rates regardless of usage. The frugal are subsidizing the wasteful, and small families are subsidizing large ones.

Curmudgeon said...

Farminington, Utah! From Each According To His Abilities, To Each According To His Needs!

Ozboy said...

Mr Curmudgeon & Dan

So then is Farmington a Communist community or not? It seems like Mr. C's reciting of the basic marxist creed would indicated no considering that ability to pay has nothing to do with the utility fees and we have to pay regardless of whether we need the services or not.

I recognize what Dan is getting at, but as a practical matter it seems like any city would be hard pressed to charge for only what was used considering the huge costs of the infrastructure needed to deliver the utilities. Pipes in and out of a neighborhood cost the same regardless of how much an individual house uses. It would take a pretty complex billing formula to get it right. Hell, they would have to hire a physicist or some other brainiac to figure it all out! Then our bills really would go through the roof.

Dan S. said...

Oz,

They already read your water meter every month and charge you for water used beyond the first 5000 gallons. So all they'd have to do is change the formula (not make it more complicated) to bill you for the fixed cost plus a per-gallon rate that applies to every single gallon used. That's what the electric and gas companies do, as do Ogden and SLC for their water. All cities should do the same.

The next step, which SLC takes and Ogden doesn't, would be to base your sewer bill on water use as well. Again, there would be a basic fee for being hooked into the system, but every flush of the toilet would add a little more onto your bill.

Storm sewer fees should be based on the size of the property, or (if you want to get complicated) on the amount of impermeable surface on the property. The latter is hard to measure, but county records already include parcel sizes so that data is there.

Finally, you should have the option of using a smaller trash barrel. Ogden offers two different sizes; SLC offers three. Folks who produce less trash can then opt for the smaller size and save money.

None of this is rocket science.

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