WELLINGTON, Colo. (CBS4) – Many Colorado cities and towns are seeing water prices go up amid rapid population growth, but some of the highest price hikes are now hitting the small town of Wellington in northern Colorado. CBS4 Investigates found the base water rate increased in less than a year from $19 a month to $66 a month – four times the base rate in Denver.
The base rate for the city of Denver’s water is $16.46, and Fort Collins’ base rate is $18.30.
Residents in Wellington also showed CBS4 Investigates their water bills. In the winter months, the cost was about $110 a month for typical water usage. That’s about double the state average of only $51.53 a month for typical use, according to state documents.
Town officials say based on their calculations, the majority of customers use less than 5,000 gallons a month, which should only make for an $88 a month water bill.
“There are several municipalities that are within the same range – Boulder, Brookside, Cokedale, Eaton, Federal Heights, Fort Lupton, Georgetown, Glendale, Idaho Springs, Ignacio, Jamestown, Manitou Springs, Minturn and Nederland just to name a few,” a town spokesperson wrote to CBS4.
The town also said in April 2021, there were 3,895 customers with bills of $125 of less – about 98% of the town’s water-paying population.
But Amy Cue, of Wellington, said she expects her water bill to be as high as $300 a month in the summer.
“It’s just crazy,” Cue said. “We understand this needs to happen, but this is pretty outrageous how they’ve done it for us.”
What’s The Reason For The Price Hike?
It’s a necessary charge, town leaders say, to pay for a new water treatment facility to keep up with Wellington’s rapid growth.
“We’re in the process of doing a master plan to do a water plant expansion; we’re tapping the top of the production on our current water plan, so to keep up with the growth of the town, we do need to do some type of expansion out there,” said Wellington Mayor Pro Tem Wyatt Knutson.
Knutson explained during the process of researching the town’s water needs, town leaders discovered its water fund had been operating in the red for the last few years.
“We found out that our water fund was way out of whack; we were actually running in the red on that water plant, so we were pulling money out of the water fund to run daily operations,” Knutson said. “So when we started looking into that – the cost of running that aging plant, the proposed cost of the new plant expansion – we were way behind what we were charging, so we figured we had to do a reading to try to get the fund back into balance, and be able to cover the costs of the water plant expansion.”
Knutson also said town leaders realized the town hadn’t increased its rates since 2016.
“The prices are fair, based on the analysis that we did; we tried to step it a little bit, so we did first increase in October, and the second increase was in January, so we gave a couple months in between,” Knutson said. “The biggest thing is we’re so far behind, we had to make some kind of dramatic changes, if not, we were just going to be further behind.”
He said another wrench in the situation was the increase in water prices from the North Poudre Irrigation Company, Wellington’s water source.
“I think the biggest thing is nobody was going to predict was that in 2017, the share price was about $85,000 a share, and now it’s over $190,000 a share,” Knutson said. “So that’s probably the biggest increase, and that was something we didn’t see coming.”
‘We Were Unaware Of What Was Going On’: Town Leaders Discuss Past Mistakes
But some residents like James Raymond believe the town could have done more in the past to prevent such a big hike now in the present.
“We always knew going in the problem, Wellington would issue the building permits, Wellington should have known the infrastructure, the capabilities of what’s coming in and what’s coming down,” Raymond said. “We should not be in the situation that we are today.”
CBS4 Investigates asked Knutson if the town’s water fund was in the red, and the town knew its water treatment facility wouldn’t be able to keep up with future growth, why did the town continue to issue new building permits?
“I think we have the water to do it, and growth does pay for a lot of the plant expansions and infrastructure costs,” Knutson answered. “I think the biggest thing we got caught on was we had done a study, adjusted the rates, and then didn’t follow through with progressively adjusting, and so if we keep a better handle on that in the future, I think we stay in a better position.”
But residents say the water quality doesn’t seem to be worth the price, saying it often smells like rotten eggs and has a bad taste.
“It makes you wonder if the water is actually clean,” Cue said. “Definitely a funky smell to it… it’s really weird.”
Testing documents show the water is safe to drink, the town says its water source is just prone to more algae blooms that makes it harder to treat.
The town also says its new water treatment facility will have new technology that should help eliminate the odor and smell issues.
“It takes care of two things: one, basically allows us to grow, to a point where we exhaust our current water capacity, which puts us about double the size of the town now,” Knutson said. “The other thing is that it definitely will improve the quality of our water; the ozone treatment portion of it will take care of the taste and odor. Also it’s, it’s updated technology, as far as the plan is concerned, to have a better treatment process.”
But one issue lingers: residents are wary if the town can be good stewards of their money moving forward. The mayor pro tem admits the town failed to collect newly instituted developer fees in recent months, resulting in a loss of thousands of dollars of revenue, on top of the water fund running in the red over the years.
“I think a lot of it was we were unaware of what was going on. We knew there were increases, we knew that we were getting stuff at the end of the year where we had to re-appropriate funds to cover it. A lot of us were led to believe it was just the the rate increase for the raw water, and also that it would come back down, and that it was just kind of a blip in the market. It appears to have leveled off this year, so that’s a good sign,” Knutson said. “All of us are well aware of it now, we have policies in place where we’re going to look at these rates annually. We’ve got a much better, more robust approach… and (it will) allow us to stay in a better position to manage those rates.”
Moving forward, Cue and her neighbors would like to see more plans from the town on exactly how these high fees will be used.
“I understand that prices go up, and I’m not saying that our prices can’t go up, I’m saying go it in a way that’s more transparent,” Cue said. “Do it in a way that puts the community forward, and even maybe addresses some of those concerns.”
To read more about Wellington’s plans, click here.