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Valpo may explore income-based rates, lower minimums during sewer and water rate hike discussions

Michael Gallenberger
Lakeshore Public Radio

The Valparaiso City Council is looking at ways to lessen the impact of proposed water and sewer rate hikes.

Valparaiso City Services is proposing a 44-percent increase to water rates and a 46-percent increase to sewer rates, spread over five years. That means the average residential customer would see their monthly bill increase by six or seven dollars each year, between now and 2028.

Meanwhile, customers living outside the city limits would pay more. Eric Walsh with accounting firm Baker Tilly recommends a 14.9-percent surcharge, the maximum allowed without an extra layer of approval from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

"Typically, the lots are larger," Walsh explained during a recent city council meeting. "People are spread out. It costs you more to get the infrastructure out to those customers."

Additionally, the five-month sprinkling credit for yard watering would be shrunk to three months.

The adjustments are designed to help cover increasing costs, along with planned improvement projects.

But council member Emilie Hunt asked whether City Services had considered any sort of assistance for those who may have trouble paying. Bond counsel Chris Janak with Bose McKinney & Evans said a relatively recent law may allow certain utilities to charge lower rates based on income, but other options are limited.

"We can't charge more because we're young or old or green or white or red," Janak said.

He knew of only two utilities who've tried an income-based water rate: Indiana American Water and the city of South Bend.

The city could also choose to lower the minimum monthly bill, which currently stands at 2,200 gallons.

City officials questioned how many people the discounts would actually help. City Services Executive Director Steve Poulos noted that Valparaiso currently has a 99.99-percent collection rate, and Clerk-Treasurer Holly Taylor added that few residents have signed up for discounted trash fees.

"There's only like 30," Taylor said. "Out of, you know, tens of thousands of people, only 30 people take advantage."

"Right, but to those 30, that makes a big difference," Hunt noted.

Poulos also agreed to look into how many customers use less water than the monthly minimum.

Still, resident Martha Rae urged council members to find a way to help those who need it. "Why doesn't Valparaiso lead the way on providing homeowner assistance for this type of project?" Rae asked. "Be the first. Be the pioneers."

The new water and sewer rate ordinances will be presented to the city council on Monday, with a public hearing and final vote scheduled for April 22.

Michael Gallenberger is a news reporter and producer that hosts All Things Considered on 89.1 FM | Lakeshore Public Media.