Topeka governing body approves utility hikes when Councilwoman Schwartz changes her vote

Topeka’s governing body on Tuesday evening approved a measure to raise city utility rates after outgoing Councilwoman Elaine Schwartz switched her vote from “no” to “yes.” (File photograph/The Capital-Journal)

After initially rejecting a proposal to raise city utility rates, Topeka’s governing body on Tuesday evening reconsidered and approved that measure, with outgoing Councilwoman Elaine Schwartz switching her vote from “no” to “yes.”

 

Schwartz, who leaves office next month, said she changed her vote because it was the right thing to do.

“Our infrastructure is failing, and we need to get it fixed,” she said.

The measure got “yes” votes from Mayor Larry Wolgast and council members Schwartz, Karen Hiller, Tony Emerson, Michelle De La Isla and Brendan Jensen.

Council members Sandra Clear, Sylvia Ortiz and Jeff Coen dissented, with Councilman Richard Harmon being absent.

The 6-3 vote means the city will increase its water, wastewater and stormwater utility rates by 6 percent in 2018, 5 percent in 2019 and 5 percent in 2020.

The proposed rate hike initially was rejected Tuesday evening in a 5-4 vote, with six votes being needed for approval.

Wolgast, Hiller, Emerson, De La Isla and Jensen voted in favor while Schwartz, Clear, Ortiz and Coen dissented and Harmon was absent.

Emerson then made a motion to reconsider the proposal, and Jensen seconded it, said city clerk Brenda Younger.

In the discussion that followed, deputy city manager Doug Gerber said the city — if the proposed increase didn’t take effect — would need to make substantial cuts to the Capital Improvement Plan its governing body approved earlier this year.

Schwartz then was among those in the majority as the governing body voted 6-3 — with Clear, Ortiz and Coen dissenting — to approve the motion to reconsider. That was followed by the 6-3 vote to approve the measure.

For the average resident using 5,000 gallons a month, the total utility rate increase will be $4.10 a month, Gerber said.

Tuesday’s vote came after Jensen made a motion to amend the proposal by adding a provision that would enable residents to not have to pay the increase if they proved to the city that their income was below the poverty line.

Jensen withdrew that motion after Gerber suggested the proposed amendment would violate a city ordinance that bans discrimination among rates between customers of “like classes,” with all “residential” customers being in the same class.

The vote was recorded on a video of the first two hours and 23 minutes of Tuesday’s meeting, which the city government posted online here.

After the increases take effect, water and wastewater rates for customers who use city water and sewer services but live outside of Topeka will continue to amount to 175 percent of the city rates. The city doesn’t assess stormwater runoff fees to anyone who lives outside the city.

The city’s most recent previous water and wastewater service rate hike — approved Nov. 18, 2014 — increased volume rates for homes and businesses by 6 percent in 2015, 5 percent in 2016 and 5 percent in 2017.

That measure did not raise the city’s stormwater utility fee. The amount assessed for stormwater runoff depends on a property’s amount of impervious surface areas that don’t allow rainfall to soak into the ground, such as driveways, sidewalks and rooftops.

Reporter Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or on Twitter at @timhrenchir.

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