For almost three years now, Mt. Morris residents have been watching their water and sewer bills climb at regular intervals.
The good news is that the regular quarterly increases will end in March.
Faced with the necessity of digging and paying for a new well in 2008 and then starting construction of a new sewer plant last year, in 2010 the village board implemented gradual increases for both water and sewer in the form of surcharges that were added to the bills every three months.
Village president Greg Unger said that although the total increases are substantial, he and the village board opted for surcharges rather than permanent rate hikes because once the projects are paid for the surcharges stop.
"We felt a surcharge was better than a locked-in rate increase," he said.
Water surcharges began in June of 2010 and increased 5 percent every quarter until last March for a total hike of 40 percent. The base rate went from $8.57 for 350 cubic feet (2,625 gallons) of water to $12.
Sewer surcharges went into effect in June of 2010 as well and have increased 10.5 percent each quarter. The last increase will go on the March bills.
Overall the base rate will more than double from $14.47 for 350 cubic feet to $32.69.
Despite the pain in the pocketbook, Unger said the surcharges helped reduce the cost of both projects in the long run.
The water increases put the operating fund for the department back in black ink and made the village eligible with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for a grant to cover part of the cost of the well project and a low interest loan to cover the rest.
The sewer increase meant the village could pay for the land where the new sewer plant is located and the engineering plan before going to the IEPA for funding for the project.
"You can't apply for grants or loans without a way to pay for the project," Unger said. "The rates had to increase to cover it."
The new well became necessary, he said, after high levels of radium were detected in Well 3, bringing fines from the IEPA.
The aging sewer plant, built in the 1930s and updated in the 1970s, was unable to meet IEPA standards for the effluent being discharged, also bringing fines.
"We were running in violation because the plant had not been making its numbers, and then the numbers tightened and we couldn't make them," Unger said.
In both cases, village officials were able to get the fines decreased because they had a plan in the works to solve the problem.
In fact, Unger said, the village board started planning for the sewer plant eight years ago.
The $12 million project will cost the village only $9 million, thanks to two grants, one for $2.5 million and another for $500,000, he said.
Savings along the way and a lower interest rate than anticipated means the IEPA loan for the project may be paid back sooner than expected.
"We may get it paid off in less than 20 years," Unger said.
Some residents have asked why the village proceeded with the sewer project after the closing of the Quad/Graphics plant, Unger said.
"We had to for our 3,000 residents. It wasn't the plant we needed it for — it was for our residents," he said. "Also if we are to attract new industry, we have to be able to offer them good infrastructure."
The new plant is designed to handle 800,000 gallons of wastewater per day, larger than the 600,000 gallons the village currently processes.
"The IEPA requires a capacity that allows for growth," Unger said. "Once this is completed, Mt. Morris should have an 80 to 100 year plant. It will be 20 years with minimal maintenance."
The new plant is expected to go into operation late this year.