When Ronda O’Hara and her family moved from Lee’s Summit to Kansas City late last year, they loved their new home near Bannister Road.
But as O’Hara has opened her Kansas City water bills during these first few months in the new house, she’s felt very different emotions. Shock, awe and a flood of frustration.
The March bill for the family of four was $131.67. Her Lee’s Summit bill one year earlier: $50.15.
“That’s when I had a cow,” O’Hara said.
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All over Kansas City, residents cringe as they pay their household water bills, which average $102 per month — some $1,200 a year — and are slated to go even higher.
That’s more than double what they were just nine years ago, forcing some low-income people to choose between water and other life essentials. Thousands of residents have appealed for help with their water bills, far more than assistance funds can accommodate.
For some low-income residents, said Doug Langner, manager at Bishop Sullivan Center’s St. James Place, water “is becoming a luxury instead of a utility.”
Pat Clarke, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association in Kansas City’s urban core, said his neighborhood includes some low-income residents for whom rising water bills make it hard to afford their diabetes medicine.
“They’re having to make a choice,” Clarke said. “Whether you pay that water bill or get that health-related medication. That’s a hell of a situation.”
One woman who lives near 84th Street and the Paseo complained to her City Council representative about exorbitant water costs and fees. She now uses as as little water as possible.
“I go to the gym to take a shower,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used.
Sharon Clement, a south Kansas City resident, remembers back to 1994, when the water bill came every other month and averaged about $35. In February, her monthly bill, for a single person with a water-saver toilet and shower, was $96. She’s so disgusted that she’s supporting a petition drive for a state audit of Kansas City Water Services.
The mounting cost of Kansas City water and sewer services has been building since 2010. That’s when the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Justice Department reached a consent decree with the city requiring a 25-year sewer overhaul plan, costing up to $5 billion, to address frequent sewage overflows and environmental contamination to rivers and streams.
Water charges also have increased as the city starts fixing thousands of decrepit, leak-riddled water mains.
All the work has pushed Kansas City’s water bills higher than in many comparable cities. In one recent comparison, Kansas City’s combined water/sewer charges ranked higher than those in St. Louis, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Nashville, Tenn.
The outcry from residents has reached such a roar that a task force has spent a year looking at possible solutions. There are no easy answers, but the task force hopes to polish its recommendations at a meeting Tuesday, May 9. Those recommendations will go to the City Council, which oversees the water department and approves annual rate increases.
“It’s a huge concern,” said City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, a task force member who hears many constituent complaints.
City Councilman Scott Wagner, who chairs the task force, thinks the city can make a strong case to reopen negotiations with the EPA and get some relief.
“We cannot sustain this level of fee on the sewer side,” he said. “We can’t price people out of being able to have the service.”
But he cautions the negotiations could take more than a year, and the outcome is uncertain.
Water Services Director Terry Leeds said the department is serious about seeking rate relief for its 170,000 customers, including 155,000 households. But he also says Kansas City water used to be a low-cost utility, and the reality is those days are over.
“The big message is water is not going to be as cheap as it used to be,” he said.
When Kansas City and the EPA signed a sewer overflow control plan in 2010, city leaders heralded the agreement for giving them 25 years to address the problem. That was more time than other U.S. cities were getting.
Yes, it would be hugely expensive and the cost would be borne by ratepayers; the federal government was not providing any funding. But the costs could be spread out over more than two decades.
At the height of the negotiations with the EPA in 2008, the average household bill, including both water and sewer, was about $48 per month. The City Council knew the plan called for double-digit sewer rate increases for more than eight years, but that was still deemed affordable because incomes in Kansas City historically had risen by nearly 3 percent per year.
But that income projection was grossly optimistic. The Great Recession hit hard, and median income actually dropped in 2010. Since 2010, Wagner said, incomes in Kansas City have risen by only one-half percent per year.
Bottom line: the EPA and city planners expected the average median income to rise from $44,400 in 2009 to $56,000 by 2017. Instead, it’s about $46,000, according to U.S. Census data. And many households make less than the median income.
The overflow control plan has indirectly affected the entire region, not just Kansas City. As sewer charges mounted, both Johnson County in Kansas and Liberty in the Northland have opted to build their own multimillion-dollar sewage treatment plants instead of relying on Kansas City as they had in the past. That’s affecting their ratepayers as well. Their sewer bills won’t rise as rapidly as in Kansas City, but people in those communities will pay for those new facilities.
The cost-of-service task force, including not just City Council members but residents, utility experts and environmental advocates, has received dozens of emails from constituents furious about the increases and pleading for help.
“I don’t believe it is proper to hoist the massive public water works project solely on the end users through rate increases,” wrote Northeast Kansas City resident Joseph Quinn, echoing a frequent refrain. “This has and will continue to hurt the citizens of this city as well as providing additional incentive to move outside the city limits.”
Many say it’s unfair to make current residents pay to fix problems built up through decades of neglect and mismanagement. Many complain their water bill is now more expensive than electricity, gas or cable TV. Some say the department must operate more efficiently, but they’re not confident that will happen.
For many in Kansas City, the rising water bills aren’t just a frustration. They’re becoming unaffordable.
In the past 12 months, the department has had about 18,000 shutoffs for delinquent payments. That’s actually down from a peak of 22,000 during the 2010 recession, but still reflects a big struggle.
The department has a fund for the truly needy, helping about 700 to 800 customers per year. The fund has grown from $250,000 in 2009 to $400,000 this year. The department this year has lowered the maximum amount a ratepayer can get from $500 to $350, in hopes of helping more than 1,000 customers. But it still covers just a fraction of the need.
John Rich is a task force member and also executive director of the Mid-America Assistance Coalition, which oversees the water assistance fund. He says the program received 5,778 calls for water assistance in 2015 and 6,688 calls in 2016. Water has risen to fourth on the list of appeals, behind electricity, rent and gas.
Rich predicts a growing population of fixed-income elderly folks burdened by their water bills. Still, he doesn’t see rates going any lower.
“This is a tough nut to crack,” he said. “The infrastructure has to be upgraded. There’s just no getting around it.”
It’s also profoundly affecting those trying to provide affordable housing in Kansas City. Swope Community Builders, which manages 600 affordable housing units in East Kansas City, sent a letter to the task force pleading for help.
Rents are controlled, so Swope Community Builders absorbs the rising water costs. That reduces the company’s budget to maintain its eight multifamily properties, Swope Community Builders Chief Executive Art Chaudry told The Star.
“It affects our ability to provide quality and well-maintained affordable housing,” he said.
Some people speculate that the EPA is in trouble with the Trump administration and wonder if that might eliminate Kansas City’s hugely expensive consent decree. But Leeds says that’s not happening.
“The EPA is not going away,” he said.
Still, Leeds says his department will reopen negotiations later this year, and is fairly confident of some relief.
The city so far has met the plan’s requirements to pay for preliminary sewer improvements and is on time and on budget, so that’s a plus for the city’s negotiating posture.
The department has spent nearly $388 million since 2011 repairing hundreds of neighborhood sewer mains and other wastewater infrastructure, much of it more than 80 years old, to reduce basement backups and other overflows. The plan calls for investing $891 million more over the next five years.
Among the city’s goals in seeking relief:
▪ Reduce the burden on low-income residents. If the city follows the prescribed sewer rate increases to pay for the existing plan, charges will exceed 2 percent of median household income in just a few years. That’s an argument that they’ve become unaffordable.
“The original plan of finance isn’t possible because the income growth didn’t take place as anticipated,” Leeds said. “So we need to do something with our consent decree.”
▪ Reduce the overall cost. The original plan included 10 huge projects, primarily tunnels and pump stations, costing $3 billion. But some of that involved treating sewage from Johnson County and Northland suburbs. Because Johnson County and Liberty have pulled out, that could significantly reduce the cost.
▪ Get more time. Spreading the plan out over an even longer time frame could smooth out the rate increases.
▪ Get more federal help to ease the local burden. City Councilman Jermaine Reed testified in Washington on April 26 about the unfairness of unfunded mandates, particularly this overflow control plan.
“Some of the things I heard during the testimony were, if Congress thinks it’s a good idea, then Congress should pay for it,” Reed said. He came away somewhat optimistic that some federal help may eventually be available.
Shields, among others, doesn’t think rates will ever go down. But she’s hopeful the city can stem the pace of increases. Kansas City is known nationally for having excellent tap water, but she says the rates must be brought under control.
“What good does it do to have some of the best water in the nation,” she pointed out, “if nobody can afford to buy it?”