HARRISBURG — In a special meeting Tuesday, the Harrisburg City Council decided not to pass on water rate increases from the Saline Valley Conservancy District to its residents and businesses. Instead, the city will look for ways to economize internally and absorb those costs.
Mayor John McPeek said that beginning May 1, 2017, water rates for the city would have increased 15 percent, and that was unacceptable, especially since the SVCD had, the year before, raised rates by 13 percent.
“In my time on the board I have had to watch every mayor deal with this same situation, and the time has come for this to stop. At this time I cannot support raising our water rate to our citizens. We are going to have to look at every option in the future to control our costs.” he said.
According to a letter from the SVCD to the City of Harrisburg, rate increases stem from the fact that the district’s revenue is tied to water usage.
Details from the letter indicate that consumption has dropped steadily in the last four years within the district, which includes approximately 19 service areas. The decline of more than 170 million gallons corresponds to a $414,118.26 drop in revenue.
Additionally, the letter explains that because of the shortfall, the SVCD failed a bond covenant that required that the district show a cash flow of at least 20 percent of its yearly debt service. This means that it will be harder for the district to sell bonds at good rates.
It also means that it will be more difficult to make repairs to the system and drill new wells. Three of the original wells, the letter said, are over 40 years old, which is five to 10 years over the life expectancy of those wells.
SVCD chief financial officer Alison Powles said the wells have lasted that long due to “meticulous care,” but that they would be required to drill three new wells within the next year or two at a cost of approximately $4 million.
She also said that the drop in usage is directly tied to two things. “First of all, the closing of the Willow Lake Mine in 2012 really hurt us. A second, but less dramatic, factor is the fact that many of our customers are shoring up their water systems and that is contributing to the decline.”
Powles said that as municipalities replace old infrastructure with more efficient mechanics, they experience less waste, which is a good thing, but it directly affects usage.
McPeek said the time has come to start looking for a more efficient water source, and suggested the city might look into producing its own water source again from Harrisburg Lake, which he called “one of the city’s most underused resources.”
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Harrisburg Lake lies about 10 miles from Harrisburg's city limits. The 209-acre lake was impounded in 1955 to create the reservoir and provide a public water source, and at some point in the 1980s was converted into a public recreation area.
Harrisburg Water and Sewer Department Superintendent Kelly Hefner said “This issue is a bigger deal than people think. Our residents interact with this department on a daily basis. Every time they turn on a tap or take a shower they are using our services.”
Hefner said civic and business entities also use water in a way residents don’t normally consider. The fire department, for instance, counts on an affordable, reliable water source to protect the city.
Additionally, he said, as the city moves forward with exploring new water delivery options, the department will work to provide the best and cheapest water source for its residents.
In a May 4 City Council meeting, Hefner told city leaders that Harrisburg pays 33 percent more for its water than the city of Marion, which receives its services from Rend Lake Conservancy District.
At that meeting, McPeek said it was imperative the city move on this issue before the city paid more for its water and sewer services that it did for property taxes.
In Tuesday’s meeting, McPeek again challenged city leaders to think more economically with how they will use the public’s money.
“In December I would love to see our general fund departments not have to raise taxes,” he said.
McPeek said that this past year he had helped streamline the water and sewer departments by downsizing their personnel by 25 percent and not increasing rates or fees, all without any reduction in services. He challenged and encouraged all commissioners and department heads to follow his lead on this.
“I will continue to streamline my department, combining job duties, making water system improvements, and make more efficient use of what we already have. This is what we owe our residents,” he said.