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Water authority approves rate hike, fluoridation

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

In a bizarre evening at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board meeting, a measure to raise water and sewer rates failed on a tie vote and then passed 3-2 when the proposal was revisited after one of the members who voted no left the meeting.

And if that were not enough to keep observers’ heads spinning, the board approved adding fluoride to the municipal water supply through a last-minute amendment attached to an appropriations measure.

The water authority terminated fluoridation in 2011 and a move to resume it was voted down 4-2 almost exactly a year ago.

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The cast of characters in Wednesday evening’s dramatic twists and turns included City Councilor Klarissa Peña, water board chairperson; County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, vice chairperson; City Councilor Pat Davis; County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins; County Commissioner Wayne Johnson; City Councilor Trudy Jones, and Los Ranchos de Albuquerque Trustee Pablo Rael. Rael is a non-voting member of the board. A voting member not present was the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.

The rate hike under consideration was actually pre-approved by the water authority board in 2015 and just needed to get the board’s green light Wednesday to go into effect on July 1. It increases the typical single-family residential customer’s bill by about $2.75 a month or $33 annually and is intended to give the water authority the money it needs to repair or replace aging water and sewer lines and to continue a $250 million overhaul of the utility’s wastewater treatment plant.

“It is never easy to ask for a rate increase,” Hart Stebbins said to water authority officials making the case for the hike. “But I think you have pointed out that the money spent now will save money later and prevent some catastrophic collapses.”

There was little other discussion and no dissent prior to the vote, so it came as something of a surprise when it failed due to a 3-3 vote. Hart Stebbins, Peña and Jones voted yes. Davis, O’Malley and Johnson voted no.

Things would have moved forward through the stunned silence at that point, but Mark Sanchez, the utility’s executive director, pointed out that all the language in the water rate ordinance was based on the rate hike’s approval. He said the board needed to pass an amendment changing that language during Wednesday’s meeting or defer action on that to the June meeting. Instead, the board agreed to table action on the rate hike proposal and come back to it at the end of the meeting.

Many of the other items on the agenda were dependent on the rate hike’s approval. Since the board could not act on those issues, the remainder of the meeting moved rapidly.

“And then we came back to the rate hike and opened it up for discussion,” Peña said. “The discussion was about a deferral, but Councilor Jones made a motion to vote on it again. There was a second, and we voted on it.”

But by this time, O’Malley had left the meeting for an undisclosed reason. Attempts to reach her by phone following the meeting were not successful.

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This time the rate hike – not surprisingly – passed 3-2. Hart Stebbins, Peña and Jones voted yes. Davis and Johnson voted no.

Davis said he was not opposed to raising rates to get the money necessary to improve the utility’s infrastructure, but he did not like the way the increase is structured.

He said he wanted the increase to be tied to fixed cost instead of penalizing consumers who have been working hard to use less water.

Jones said she voted for the hike because it is necessary.

“We are a business and it is our job to maintain our assets,” she said. “Had (the increase) been defeated and stood, we would have fallen behind on our goal to fund the replacement of our infrastructure.”

Johnson proposed supplementing fluoride in the municipal water supply through an amendment attached to a measure appropriating operating funds for the upcoming fiscal year. Fluoride occurs naturally in Albuquerque’s water supply at an average of 0.5 parts per million. Supplementation would boost that to 0.7 parts per million at a cost of $260,000 for new facilities and an annual operation and maintenance cost of $270,000.

The issue was hotly debated at a water authority meeting a year ago. Proponents say fluoridation is the most dependable way of preventing tooth decay and enhancing oral health for entire communities. Opponents say it does little to prevent tooth decay, causes health problems and is a violation of individual rights.

On Wednesday evening, the measure passed 3-2. Johnson, Hart Stebbins and Davis voted for it. Peña and Jones voted no.

Peña said Johnson’s amendment caught her off guard.

“The first I learned of it was when he moved the amendment,” she said. “I had not had enough time to review it and felt uncomfortable voting for it. And, in all fairness, both sides need to have the opportunity to voice their concerns.”

David Morris, public affairs manager for the water authority, said supplemental fluoridation of the water supply could begin within the next year.

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