Municipal water customers of the city of Rifle will get a welcome New Year's gift from the city when they open their utility bills in 2013.
Water rates will be substantially lower, after City Council approved an emergency ordinance on Dec. 19 that modifies the water rates that were implemented in September. Those rates were more than double the previous rates in some cases, and were increased to help repay a $25.5 million loan to build a new water treatment plant.
City Manager John Hier said the reduction follows voter passage of a 3/4 of a cent sales and use tax hike at the Nov. 6 general election. That tax hike was proposed by the city to help ease the financial burden on water users.
Hier noted the ordinance also eliminates a second round of water rate increases planned for April 1.
"I think these are very reasonable rates and represent a significant reduction in water bills," Hier said.
However, he noted the new rates are still higher overall than the rates that were in effect for the first half of 2012. But, he added, tiers one and two ($3.20 and $3.40 per 1,000 gallons) are less than the old rate of $3.54 per 1,000 gallons.
"I believe these new rates will give water customers the relief they are seeking," Hier wrote in a memo to the council.
Rates for outside city users were also reduced from double the in-city rates to one and a half times higher, he added.
Hier said the ordinance also cleans up "loose ends" in the existing water rate ordinance, such as minor charges for services that are no longer assessed.
City Attorney Jim Neu noted the ordinance added new "stand-by" fees for vacant properties that have city water service.
"It's just to cover the costs of maintaining the system," Neu said. "There is overhead, even if the water isn't used. This is something we haven't had before, but it's pretty common."
Hier said on Friday, Dec. 21 that the stand-by fee is one quarter of the base rate of $24 a month, so vacant property customers will be charged $6 a month.
In order for the new water rates to take effect on Jan. 1, the date the three-quarter cent sales and use tax takes affect, the ordinance was labeled an "emergency ordinance," which required at lease five of the seven council members to approve it. All seven voted in favor.
Hier added that since these rates take affect on Jan. 1, the day when previous annual utility rate hikes were implemented, that 5 percent increase will not occur for water customers in 2013.