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New Sanitation Rate Coming To NKY

Newport city commissioner Ken Rechtin pleads for a delay at the Campbell County Fiscal Court meeting.
Michael Monks
Newport city commissioner Ken Rechtin pleads for a delay at the Campbell County Fiscal Court meeting.

It was a tale of three counties this week as Sanitation District 1 Executive Director Adam Chaney made the rounds at Northern Kentucky fiscal courts pushing for an allowance to change the base rate structure at the regional utility.

Kenton County Fiscal Court unanimously approved the change with little fanfare.

Campbell County Fiscal Court also unanimously approved the measure, but with a lengthy and showy debate prior to the vote.

Boone County Fiscal Court could not reach a consensus, first on whether to delay the change for at least six months, and then on whether to approve the change at all. The proposed delay was defeated in a 2-2 tie, dying for lack of a majority. The proposal to change the base rate structure at SD1 died on the floor for lack of a second and never received a vote.

However, with the state law that governs the operation of the sanitation district, two of the three counties need to adopt the change, so with Kenton and Campbell in favor, the change goes into effect across the region, including Boone County.

One of the criticisms surrounding the change was a perceived lack of public input on the matter, but Chaney said that Wednesday evening's Campbell County fiscal court meeting was the seventh such public forum where the change was discussed. Campbell was the last to vote on the issue, with Kenton preceding it the night before and Boone not moving forward on Tuesday morning.

"You're here because you knew about it," Chaney said to Newport City Commissioner Ken Rechtin, who took charge of the Campbell County meeting where a near hour-long debate broke out. Rechtin said that there had not been enough information presented to the public. He asked for a 90-day delay. Chaney said that there was a public meeting last week for the sole purpose of discussing the issue and was broadcast live via Facebook where it received 1,000 views.

"We had two meetings in every county, a Facebook live video," Chaney said. "You're trying to make an argument to delay because the process is flawed or whatever but on what grounds are you disagreeing on the logic of the purpose?"

"Because we are public entities and we should inform our public," Rechtin said. 

"We had seven public meetings," Chaney said again. "What is in the next 90 days that we can present?"

"I disagree with the way this was rolled out," Rechtin said.

Chaney explained at the meetings across the region that SD1 was adversely impacted primarily by lower water consumption due to higher-efficiency appliances, and also by the constraints of the federal consent decree the utility entered into with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which mandated a pricey clean-up of the sanitary water systems in Northern Kentucky related to the adoption of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

That consent decree had long been a drag on the utility and customers' sanitation bills with near-annual rate increases needed to cover the associated costs of fulfilling the federal obligations and the normal operations and projects. Chaney said that with the change in the base rate structure, which was already approved by the SD1 board of directors, whose members are appointed by the judges/executive of the three counties in numbers based on population, annual rate increases would not be as severe or could even be less than usual.

According to the presentation shown by Chaney, net revenue generated by the base rate will be offset by reducing the variable rate. Over the next four years, the presentation said, higher-volume users will see their bills decrease while lower-volume users will see their bill go up. Average-volume user rates will remain constant, Chaney said.

The plan is to adjust the base rate structure over the next four years with the average cost for rate-payers being about $21 each month in 2020, $25 in 2021, $30 in 2022, and $34 in 2023. Those fees include both an operational and environmental charge.

Concern was expressed about people who use less water being penalized and also for lower-income residents likely seeing their bills increase.

"Even once all this work is done and the rate structure is adjusted, our people are going to be paying less than in competing utilities," Campbell County Judge/Executive Steve Pendery said. "All you can do with your utilities is do a better job than everyone else, and if they are, I don't see how you can complain."

"I am not disagreeing with a change in the base rate," Rechin, the Newport city commissioner, said. "I'm disagreeing with how it was rolled out and protections for people who can't afford it."

Chaney explained that SD1 is working with the Brighton Center in Newport to have a fund available to assist rate-payers who are unable to afford a significant increase in their bills. Campbell County Geoff Besecker was also reassured following a conversation with the Brighton Center on the matter, he said. Currently, SD1 and the Brighton Center have a memorandum of agreement to address the situation.

Besecker said the proposal with Brighton Center raised the baseline poverty rate percentage from 150 to 200 percent of the poverty rate for residents who would be eligible to participate in the forthcoming program. 

In Boone County, Commissioner Jesse Brewer moved that the issue be tabled for six months to open up more discussion with the public. He also said that turnout at public meetings would likely have been greater had SD1 scheduled more and advertised them on the bills.

His motion was supported by Commissioner Cathy Flaig, but voted against by Commissioner Charlie Kenner and Judge/Executive Gary Moore.

Kenner's motion to approve the change to the base rate structure ultimately failed to gain a second and so the matter never received a vote.

At Kenton County, following Chaney's presentation, the full court voted in favor with very little feedback.

With the change in the base rate structure and a pending agreement with the EPA, which still needs approval from a federal judge, the timeline for SD1 to fully fulfill its federal obligations would be adjusted from 2025 to 2040, giving even more relief to the agency.

To see the SD1 base rate presentation, click here.

Editor's note: The author of this article attended the Campbell County Fiscal Court meeting but watched the Kenton County Fiscal Court meeting via the Telecommunications Board of Northern Kentucky, and the Boone County Fiscal Court meeting through its website.

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Michael Monks brings a broad range of experience to WVXU-FM as the new host of Cincinnati Edition, Cincinnati Public Radio's weekday news and information talk show.