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Basalt council retreats from stiff water rates

The Basalt Town Council is retreating from stiff rates it implemented last year to try to force the largest water users to conserve.

The council voted 5-1 Tuesday night to increase prices for people that use the lowest amount of water and decrease the fee for people who use the highest amounts.

The council majority wanted new water rates that ease price hikes adopted last year. Council members felt the new rates were more fair to all town residents and didn’t place the burden of conservation just on the water users who consume the most.

In addition, the rates adopted last year raised more revenues than needed to operate the water system, according to staff research.

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Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt voiced the only objection to the new rates. She said she couldn’t justify charging the lowest water users more money while lowering the rate for the town’s biggest residential water users. “It just rubs me wrong still,” she said.

Councilwoman Anne Freedman, who had championed earlier efforts to use higher rates as a conservation tool with higher water users, supported the new fees.

Tuesday’s action was the first of two votes required to adopt the new water rates. Another reading of the ordinance and a public hearing will be held March 23.

Under the new plan, all town water customers will have their flat monthly rate drop from $20 to $17, regardless of how much water they use. Consumption fees were also altered. People who use the lowest amounts of water will see their fee change from $1.15 per 1,000 gallons to $1.60.

The lowest price tier is considered anyone who uses less than 350 gallons per day and less than 31,000 gallons per quarter.

On the other end of the scale, the largest consumers of water saw their rates drop from $6 per 1,000 gallons to $5.50.

The new rates will still raise enough revenues to operate the water system.

The new proposal drew mixed reactions from audience members. Bernie Grauer, the only only one of the six council candidates in the April 6 election to attend the hearing, said the council’s decision was “reasonable.”

He said he supported easing the burden on larger water users without placing too high of an increase on lower water users. “They took a little bit of the sting out of it,” he said.

Grauer said he would like to see the town do more with conservation incentives. He would like to use the cash reserve in the water fund to start a rebate program for town residents who buy super-efficient washing machines. The Community Office for Resource Efficiency offers that type of rebate program in Pitkin County and Aspen.

Grauer said a rebate of $100 to $200 should be offered in Basalt. Limits could be set on how much could be spent per year on the program so the reserves wouldn’t be dipped into too much, he said.

Basalt resident Greg Sugars, who served on a citizens committee that studied water issues, said he fears the council’s direction will send the wrong message.

“What I’m looking at from [Tuesday] night doesn’t promote conservation,” Sugars said. “I am concerned that, no pun intended, it’s really watered down.”

Sugars preferred a system that would drastically drop the flat rate for all water users, regardless of how much they use. He wanted consumption rates to be high across the board to promote conservation.

The new rates don’t provide enough incentive to conserve for users of low or high amounts, he said.

Sugars said he found the fee debate somewhat ironic for an area that prides itself on environmental awareness and practices. People are arguing over whether the fee for using 1,000 gallons of water should be $1.15 or $1.60. Many of those same people would think nothing of spending a buck or more on a quart of bottled water from a store, he noted.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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