Each time the region gets three-quarters of an inch of rain, raw sewage overflows at 180 locations in Northern Kentucky. Larger storms cause flooding, sometimes several feet deep in places, and there's enough money to fix only emergency collapses in the hodgepodge system, built piece-by-piece decades ago by the region's cities.
Last year, under the demands of a federal consent decree to fix the system by 2026, Northern Kentucky Sanitation District No. 1 proposed a 9 percent increase in sewer rates, after back-to-back 15 percent rate increases each year from 2009-2012.
Leaders in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties said their residents couldn't afford it. They ordered Rager, executive director of SD1, to renegotiate the agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more time to spread out the cost for residents, discussions that are now underway and expected to be resolved by summer of 2015.
It's once again time to set rates, and, as the consent decree gets sorted out, SD1 has proposed a 4.9 percent rate increase for both sewer and stormwater fees – estimated to cost $1.86 more a month or $22.32 a year on a house with three to six rooms.
- Click here to see the press release by SD1 -
The increase would cover operating costs, which have increased because of the rise in the cost of gasoline, electricity and treatment plant chemicals, Rager said. It also would pay off some debt the district owes for building two new treatment plants last decade.
To the dismay of community leaders, there will not be room in the budget for new sewer lines to future residential or commercial developments or for continued work on any consent decree projects that would ease flooding and replace old pipes, Rager said.
If the higher rate isn't approved, SD1 "will have to cut back on maintenance and repairs, and hope those pipes don't collapse," Rager said.
Covington City Commission signed a resolution asking that any money from the increase be directed to projects that would protect the public health, safety and property for ratepayers.
"It's easier to build new than to tear up existing pipes ... but the urban cores can't be ignored anymore," said Covington Mayor Sherry Carran.
Independence's city council passed a resolution against the rate increase, "as it could create an undue hardship on many of their residents" on fixed incomes.
Some ratepayers ask that, if there is an increase, the district could at least restore the private sanitary sewer lateral program, which assisted ratepayers in fixing collapsed pipes that carry sewage from their homes to the main line in the street. When the rate increase was rejected last year, that program came to an end.
Our Savior Catholic parish on East 10th Street in Covington had a lateral pipe collapse under the street, and Sister Janet Bucher was shocked when a letter arrived stating they had to have a plan to fix the street and pipe within 10 days or risk daily fines. A plumber estimated costs at $20,000.
"It was absolutely ridiculous," said Bucher. "Since when does a homeowner have to fix the middle of the street?"
Roughly 45 other people in Northern Kentucky paid for lateral fixes, Rager confirmed. "I sympathize with those folks," he said of the property owners who got stuck with those bills, "but technically we don't own those lateral pipes, and at this point we have to focus on what we own."
The district has worked to cut costs, Rager said, including finding $100,000 in savings by switching an electricity contract and making reductions in staff and staff benefits. The 2014 budget is expected to come in $2 million to $3 million under cost.
But SD1's commitments must come first, including paying the mortgage on two treatment facilities built to replace a treatment plant that was over capacity. In addition, fees for new connections have dwindled from about $7 million a year before the recession to less than $1 million this year.
"Every minute 1,000 toilets flush across Northern Kentucky, and I can't stop them," said Rager. "I have to take what they flush and treat it."
Kenton County Judge-executive Steve Arlinghaus will be one of three people to decide on the rate increase. Right now, he's leaning against the increase. "I wouldn't say I'm committed to 'no,' " Arlinghaus said. "I have to keep an open mind, given the situation we are in today. There are two important things not happening right now, the concerns of the urban core and the inability to support growth."
Northern Kentucky Sanitation District No. 1's board of directors will vote at 2 p.m. Tuesday on whether they agree with the proposed 4.9 percent increase in sewer rates for most residents of Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. The meeting is at the SD1 office, 1045 Eaton Drive, Fort Wright. If the board agrees to the rate increase, it must be approved by two of the counties' judges-executive in a meeting scheduled for June 23.
Rates triple since 2000
SD1 is seeking a combined rate hike of 4.9 percent starting July 1. The agency's fees have risen 291.8 percent since 2000 after adjusting for inflation into 2014 dollars, an Enquirer analysis shows.
Quarterly rates Yearly
Fiscal year House * Stormwater total
2000 $22.83 $0.00 $91.32
2001 $26.00 $0.00 $104.00
2002 $29.74 $0.00 $118.96
2003 $34.01 $11.25 $181.04
2004 $34.01 $11.52 $182.12
2005 $34.01 $11.73 $182.96
2006 $39.11 $12.06 $204.68
2007 $46.94 $12.54 $237.92
2008 $56.33 $12.90 $276.92
2009 $64.77 $13.41 $312.72
2010 $74.49 $13.32 $351.24
2011 $85.65 $13.62 $397.08
2012 $98.52 $14.04 $450.24
2013 $98.52 $14.40 $451.68
2014 $103.38 $15.12 $474.00