Last year, a recall effort centered around Westminster’s water rates began. Since then, city council held five study sessions to engage the community in the process to set 2022 rates. After, city staff approved several unprecedented financial maneuvers to mitigate the increase of its recommendation to the council.
Yet, for some on the council, it wasn’t enough.
“It doesn’t seem to me that we’re actually listening and have listened to the concerns over the past year,” said Councilor Lindsey Smith at a study session on March 15, when the council received and discussed for the first time the city’s 2022 rate recommendations.
Councilor David DeMott echoed Smith at a Facebook live town hall on March 16.
At the same time, other councilors feel the complete opposite.
“We did a lot to try and fold in the concerns of the community into the rate recommendation,” said Mayor Pro Tem Anita Seitz in a phone conversation.
The recommendation is to increase water rates by about 4 percent and sewer rates by 5 percent. Yet, the political divide on the issue runs deep and it’s unclear if the council will approve the recommendations in a May meeting or at least unanimously.
The one thing councilors on both ends of the aisle agree about is that water rates are political and that’s not a bad thing. Water rates are political by their very nature and aren’t a cut and dry subject everyone agrees on, Smith and Seitz said in phone calls.
“Core city services can be an issue for residents because they’re seeing their tax dollars go towards providing that service,” Smith said.
Seitz said that the council has the final say on rates for a reason. She said, “It is appropriate to some level for there to be politics involved. We’re a political body, we’re an elected body and we’re the ones ultimately making the decision.”
That’s where the two paths divert, though. While both councilors agree that water rates should be apolitical, they disagree on how political it should get.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility. So, it’s not as much wiggle room on other legislative matters that we look at,” Seitz said.
To the mayor pro tem, a city councilor’s opinion about water rates shouldn’t supersede their commitment to the city charter or accepting fact-based recommendations from city staff.
Yet, Smith and DeMott don’t feel the politics of water rates is clouding their judgment or driving them to extreme points of view. To them, they are simply listening to and relaying past and present concerns from residents saying that water rates are too high. That’s why they are still against the rates, even after the five study sessions and the city’s major financial maneuvers.
“I was telling the council what the residents were telling me in 2018. Nobody wanted to listen. You said I was just this mean conservative and just trying to make a name for myself. It wasn’t that at all,” said DeMott at the Facebook town hall.
Seitz said to not presume how every council member will ultimately vote on the rates in May. However, councilors have made it clear the way they feel about the subject and that likely will not change soon nor beyond May.
“Those things are absolutely going to be part of this next election cycle,” DeMott said at the town hall.
People will judge current councilors running for reelection in the Nov. 2 election based on how they vote on water rates in May. DeMott is one of those councilors running for reelection, and his stance on water rates has already garnered vocal support from the Westminster Water Warriors, the recall group.
Councilor Kathryn Skulley is also running for reelection. At the March 15 study session, she said that she is concerned about affordability, but that she also supports the staff’s recommendation.
Seitz, who is running for mayor and is up against an opponent taking a strong stance against rates, also acknowledged that her position on water rates will affect her candidacy. But, what’s most important to her is approving rates to help maintain the utility infrastructure.
“This (issues with utilities) isn’t going to be an immediate catastrophe, but it has the potential to be the catastrophe. So, it’s kind of like playing roulette,” Seitz said. “And I’m never going to put my political career above the long-term sustainability of my community.”