Rising utility rates to fund millions in ‘vital’ projects in Pearland, Friendswood

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Pearland and Friendswood are projected to invest over $367 million in water and sewer infrastructure over the next several years, which means higher water bills are inevitable for residents in both cities.

“We are trying to provide a vital service for our citizens,” Friendswood City Manager Morad Kabiri said.

Water and sewer bills in Friendswood could increase as much as 21 percent starting in April or May, depending on the billing cycle, under a new rate structure approved Feb. 4.

In Pearland, base fees and usage rates remained flat this year, but rising rates have resulted in 21 percent higher bills  on average since fiscal year 2015, which began in October 2014. Pearland’s water rates are anticipated to increase by 5.2 percent next year and by 12.2 percent the following year, city officials said.

Officials say the investments are critical and in some cases are contractually obligated, meaning all residents can do to keep bills down is to use less water. Both cities have also increased impact fees, which are charged to developers for new projects, to share the cost of new infrastructure.

“These aren’t projects that are luxury items,” Kabiri said. “These are projects that we’re contractually obligated with partners in our various regional facilities to tackle.”

Friendswood upping rates

For the first time in over five years, Friendswood is bumping up water rates and fees, raising an average $144 bimonthly bill to $175 based on 20,000 gallons per pay period of water and sewer use, according to city officials.

Both base fees and usage rates are going to be higher now that the new rate structure is approved. While residents can cut usage to lower rates, the base fees are determined by the meter size a resident has as well as the rate the city has set for wastewater charges.

Some Friendswood residents, including Lisel Rockwood, already conserve water without a change in their bill, Rockwood said.

“It’s another increase that people on fixed incomes have to cram into their budgets. For many this means further reductions in basic necessities such as medicine, food, health care and even their homes,” Rockwood said.

However, some residents, including Rockwood, are not sure of what size meter they have, as the meter was typically installed when the house was built, and that information does not appear on the bimonthly bill, Rockwood said.

Friendswood’s water projects include replacing outdated pipes, including a 42-inch water line to connect with the city of Houston, a project expected to cost $12.8 million, making it one of the most expensive items on the list of water and wastewater projects in Friendswood’s capital improvement plan, which totals $32.5 million. The city is required to help fund that project, which will provide clean water to the city, along with Houston, Pasadena, League City and smaller municipalities, Kabiri said.

In December, the city issued $20 million in bonds to begin to fund those projects. To pay back the bonds, the council voted to increase water rates charged for meter size, as well as usage. The average increase—roughly $30 per billing period every two months—was determined assuming a 1-inch meter, 20,000 gallons used for water and 20,000 for sewer per pay period.

It is not clear how much revenue the new rates would bring in, as the new rates could cause conservation in usage. However, the city has factored that change in, Kabiri said in an email.

“The plan adopted on first reading takes into account fluctuation in usage. On average the rate increase is 21 percent, while revenue requirements from last year to the next year has increased 16 percent,” Kabiri said.

If projected revenues are not hit, the city can use the reserve funds from the water and sewer fund, Kabiri said.

Initially, the city estimated a 44 percent increase could be needed, but city officials were able to change the payback period for the water bonds from 20 years to over 30 years and moved the construction timeline from five years to seven. The city also cut a project to add digital water meters around the city, as the year-over-year savings were less than the cost to implement them.

“The rates dropped considerably. They are no longer going up 44 percent. We will have to evaluate them on an annual basis,” Kabiri said.

The city may re-evaluate the new rates in October. Depending on the amount of income the city is receiving from the rates, the city could potentially lower rates, Kabiri said.

Pearland projects

The city of Pearland is investing over $335.2 million in water and wastewater projects in the next five years. Over $1.2 million is going to replace old pipes at different water facilities, including the Shadow Creek water facilities in 2019, but the city is also spending $15.97 million to replace all 37,000 water meters citywide with new digital meters.

The new meters will begin to be implemented in the spring. Meters have been installed at city buildings to test the technology, Pearland Director of Engineering Robert Upton said.

“We’ve been working on the technology component because it is technology-driven. We are making sure we can test case and read the meters and make sure everything works correctly before we implement the meters and that infrastructure with the residents. We want it to be seamless,” Upton said.

The new digital meters will not only cut back on the time and resources for city staff to check the meters to gauge water usage, but they will also be able to help detect leaks in the city system in real time, Upton said. However, the new gauge could mean paying more or less for water each month, as the meters will give an exact read.

Pearland resident Cynthia Millhollen has experienced discrepancies in her water bill and thinks  a new water meter may be better at tracking and catching problems.

“It sounds like it could take a couple years before we could even get them. In the meantime, we’re stuck with these awfully high bills waiting for these meters to be installed,” Millhollen said.

The meters would not only allow the city to view bills in real time, but the city also hopes to implement technology to allow customers to view their own water usage.

According to Upton, there are many benefits to the digital meters. They  are less prone to breakage, and the larger the meter, the more water it can handle coming into the property at a time. Conventional meters can break with too much water usage; too little water usage can also lead to incorrect readings. That is why it is important to make sure you have the right size meter, Upton said. Most residential water connections in Pearland have a 5/8 inch meter.

Also on Pearland’s water agenda is a $163 million surface water plant, a project that will be tackled in 2020 and 2021. It is the single biggest project on its capital improvement plan and is intended to help Pearland be more self-sufficient when it comes to water supply, Upton said. The project is in the design phase.

“We are always planning for our future, and we are always making sure our customer water demand needs are met. This is part of our water demand portfolio … to be able to be reliant on ourselves to supply water to our residents,” Upton said.

Pearland receives a portion of its water from contracts with the city of Houston. Now that Pearland is a larger city, this will not be a viable solution much longer, Pearland City Council Member Adrian Hernandez said.

“We’re not a small town anymore, and because of that, we need to start having more control of the resources that we provide or manage,” Hernandez said.

However, full self-reliance is years away, Pearland City Council Member Trent Perez said, simply due to funding.

“It’s hard to build a $50 million plant when you don’t have $50 million you can get. It’s easier to say, ‘I am going to pay for water that is already being produced,’” Perez said.

In the past, cities could increase self-reliance by digging wells, but using too much groundwater, which is pulled by wells, has led to subsidence, or gradual sinking of land. Because of this, cities need to use more surface water, as well as have plants to treat that surface water, Perez said.

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Haley Morrison
Haley Morrison came to Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after graduating from Baylor University. In her tenure as a reporter, she has primarily written about education, health care and transportation.
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