Great Falls utility rates rank among lowest in Montana, region in survey

Utility rates in Great Falls are among the lowest in Montana and in the lower quartile among 285 communities throughout the Upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain region according to this year’s utility rate survey conducted by AE2S Nexus.

Great Falls also ranks in the lower quartile of wastewater rates to residential customers and the lower third for commercial customers, according to the survey.

The 2017 survey included 285 participants, 130 of which were systems serving populations of 5,000 and greater, 107 systems serving populations less than 5,000 and 48 regional rural systems. Survey data was collected from utilities in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Compared to larger Montana communities, Great Falls has the lowest commercial and residential rates for water and sewer.

The monthly residential rates for water and sewer for Montana cities are:

  • Bozeman: $96.16
  • Missoula: $85.93
  • Butte: $79.08
  • Helena: $71.21
  • Kalispell: $68.98
  • Billings: $68.73
  • Great Falls: $63.94

Monthly commercial rates for Montana cities are:

  • Bozeman: $103.36
  • Butte: $93.83
  • Missoula: $92.87
  • Kalispell: $90.43
  • Helena: $89.92
  • Billings: $80.96
  • Great Falls: $75.70

The city will conduct its annual review of utility rates in the spring and Public Works have projected increases of 10 percent for water, 10 percent for storm drain and three percent for sewer. A five percent increase for residential sanitation will also be proposed, according to city documents from the budget presentations in June and July.

Jim Rearden, Public Works director, has told the City Commission on multiple occasions that many of the utility rate increases are driven by regulatory requirements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Local, state and congressional officials have penned letters to the EPA regarding some of the regulations that cause localities great financial burden.

Of the respondents serving more than 5,000 people, 27 are in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area that receive wastewater services from the Metropolitan Council – Environmental Services. Among the 103 respondents not in that metro area that are serving more than 5,000 people, 61 percent reported water rate increases this year, 58 percent reported wastewater increases and 30 percent reported storm water increases.

The average increases for water, waterwater and stormwater for systems serving more than 5,000 were 6.8 percent, 8.3 percent and 13.6 percent respectively, according to AE2S survey.  For comparison, in 2016 the average rate increases for systems of this size were 5.4 percent for water, 8.2 percent for wastewater, and 17.8 percent for stormwater.

For systems serving fewer than 5,000 people, 27 percent of respondents reported an increase to water rates, 20 percent increased wastewater rates, and none of the 22 systems reported a stormwater rate increase in 2017.

The City of Great Falls is continuing efforts to replace water mains and on Aug. 1, the commission approved an $838,800 contract to Williams Civil Division, Inc. to replace the main at Beech Drive and Cherry Drive.

The project will replace the main located within an easement along back property lines between Beech and Cherry from Forest Avenue to Juniper Avenue. The main has been failing with increasing frequency, causing damage to property and disrupting water service to local residents, according to the city staff report. The main was installed in 1950 and the main causes of breaks are corrosive soils, age and type of the pipe material used, according to Public Works.

The new water main will be installed along the roadway since the existing main is in a congested easement with a sanitary sewer main, gas main, mature trees and overhead utilities such as power, cable TV, and telephone. Area residents have also placed sheds over the easement, build fences and block walls along their property lines making it more difficult to make needed repairs.

According to Public Works, the project will replace approximately 2,400 lineal feet of 6-inch cast iron water main with 8-inch PVC water main; replace one fire hydrant and add six new fire hydrants improving the fire protection in the area; 24 water service connections; 3,700 lineal feet of copper service line; 2,300 square yards of gravel; and 2,750 square yards of asphalt pavement.

Staring Tuesday, the contractor will begin milling portions of the roads in preparation for the water main installation on Juniper Avenue between Beech and Cherry drives.

Water main installation work will begin on Aug. 21, starting on Beech Drive. The contractor will provide barricades and detour signs in the area for traffic routing. Access to the area will be severely restricted during construction.

City budget proposal impacted by legislative actions, cuts

During a commission work session this spring, Rearden told commissioners that in 1996 there 122 water main breaks citywide. His department got aggressive with water main replacements and the all time low since 1983 was in 2016 when there were just 34 breaks and by April there had been just 10 so far this year.

The city is currently going through the process to replace the Gore Hill water tower. The Design Review Board will consider the project in Monday’s meeting. The city is proposing to construct a new 500,000 gallon water storage facility on the other side of the interstate near the Crystal Inn. The city purchased the property in October for $31,000 and annexed the property in April. The total cost associated with the new water tower is approximately $3.5 million, including the constriction of the new tower, installation of new water transmission piping, pump upgrades to the Gore Hill Pump Station, site work and demolition of the existing water tower.

The City of Great Falls provides water, sewer and storm drainage utility services to approximately 18,700 residential properties, approximately 2,300 commercial properties, and also serves Black Eagle and Malmstrom Air Force Base. The system includes more than 700 miles of pipes, treatment plants and other appurtenances.

Rearden told commissioners earlier this year that 80 percent of the rate increase goes back into the community by fortifying systems, through material suppliers, consultants or contractors.