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Water and sewer rates increase; district’s technology can help 

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As Big Sky water and sewer transitions to a new Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility, district officials are transitioning the revenue structure to sustain more expensive facilities. PHOTO BY BRANDON WALKER

Public hearing on 15% rate increase hears no opposition 

By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER 

The good news: typical single-family homeowners in Big Sky can expect to pay less for water and sewer in 2024, even with the 15% increase in usage rates.  

The caveat: that 15% will impact heavy water users by a larger degree, based on the existing four-tiered system which charges variable rates at certain thresholds of gallon usage.  

Water use rates for 2023-24 reflect the uniform 15% increase. A $1 charge was implemented for reuse water. COURTESY OF BSCWSD

The shifting revenue model for the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District headlined the monthly board meeting on Tuesday morning. The district board unanimously approved its fiscal year 2024 budget, as well as the proposed 15% rate increase for water and sewer use. In that discussion, the board noted that 47% of local ratepayers are registered for WaterSmart online bill pay, a service introduced in 2021 that provides real-time insights on household water use.  

According to District General Manager Ron Edwards, Big Sky’s near-50% adoption rate might lead the country, partly because billing is included in the service. Most communities are thrilled with 15% or 20% adoption, he said. Board Chair Brian Wheeler said he’s disappointed—he’d hope to see all of Big Sky making use of a free service to monitor water use.  

“It’s a great time—as people see increasing rates—to learn how they can save money on their water usage,” board member Peter Manka told EBS. “WaterSmart, water conservation [programs from the Gallatin River Task Force] and rate increases are all hand-in-hand toward local water conservation.” 

“People never really had a tool to know when they’re wasting water… A leaky toilet wastes 1,500 gallons of water a day, conservatively. That’s a lot of water,” Manka added, pointing out that most residents don’t know about leaks until a sharp water bill arrives months later. 

A community member at the board meeting shared her similar experience using a smart water monitor from Moen, which detects and stops any spike in water use. It cut off her nephew’s shower after 15 minutes, she said.  

“[WaterSmart] empowers people to conserve, or have control over their expenditures,” Manka said. 

Any opposed? 

A public notice of the rate increase was published in EBS and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and mailed to district ratepayers before Tuesday’s public hearing

BSCWSD Administrative Assistant Marlene Kennedy received no emails or phone calls in objection. Finance Officer Terry Smith received one email expressing concern, but he was able to justify the increase during a phone call to that community member.  

Smith told EBS that for those who read the entire public notice, “all they had to do was go look at their tax bill from last year, see how much they paid, see how much they’re not gonna pay this coming year, and that the increase in our rates is [still less than] they paid last year.”  

Big Sky taxpayers recently paid off a two-decade general obligation bond, levied in 2002 to pay for the sewage treatment plant which will be replaced soon. With that debt essentially paid, the district will collect $1.1 million less in taxes this year, a roughly four-fold decrease. 

The 15% rate hike will add some cost burden based on household water and sewer usage, but it won’t amount to the 27% decrease in district mill rate. Plus, property owners now have more control over what they pay—water-saving measures like WaterSmart can reduce the added fare.  

Manka said most folks he spoke with agree: “we should be paying more for water, to promote conservation,” Manka summarized. “People should value their water, there should be a tiered system, and all of this is working the way it should.”  

Manka added that many community members were surprised the district was not previously charging for reuse water—with this rate increase, the district is also implementing a minor, uniform charge of $1 per thousand gallons.  

That rate is expected to increase in coming years, however.  

Board chair Brian Wheeler pointed out that as the district continues to encourage community adoption of reuse water, that water will also replace a primary revenue source. The district must take care to incentivize switching to reuse water while maintaining a revenue stream, Wheeler said. 

The new Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility will be more expensive to run and require more staff, Smith explained. Unlike the prior plant’s debt service which was paid by property taxes through a general obligation bond, no such bond will be issued. The incoming plant’s debt will be repaid through usage rates, with continued support from the 1% for infrastructure resort tax.  

Smith said the switch from general obligation bonds to revenue bonds was a board decision, and will allow greater flexibility. Property owners should expect further rate increases in years to come.  

“By putting the bonds in rates, [costs are] more fairly distributed among the users of the system. Whereby bigger users are going to be paying a little bit more,” Smith told the board.  

Case dismissed 

Claims against the Big Sky Water and Sewer District—including alleged perjury by GM Ron Edwards during a federal trial in April 2022—were dismissed by a judge in Gallatin County 18th District Court on June 9.  

In December 2022, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center in Bozeman filed a lawsuit against the district and against Edwards.  

Cottonwood filed a similar suit in July 2020, which advanced to federal court in 2022 where the jury found BSCWSD not guilty of violating the Clean Water Act. Legal fees cost the district $1.4 million, Edwards told EBS in 2022, and most of that burden fell on local ratepayers.  

In this recent case, now dismissed, Cottonwood Law alleged that BSCWSD “is polluting the West Fork and Gallatin River by allowing the WRRF holding ponds to leak into the groundwater. Plaintiffs also allege the District is polluting the river by overirrigating the Meadow Village golf course. Rather than asserting violations of the federal CWA as they did in [the 2020 lawsuit], Plaintiffs now allege that pond leakage and over-irrigation of the golf course violate the [Montana Water Quality Act], the Montana Constitution, and state nuisance law,” according to court documents (page 164).  

Cottonwood also filed for a restraining order to halt the district from connecting additional sewer lines, which would have created a moratorium on building and development in Big Sky.  

Edwards spoke with EBS in November about Cottonwood’s proposed lawsuit. He dismissed the validity of Cottonwood’s claims, arguing that a federal court had just ruled in favor of the district on near-identical grounds. He was not concerned about the claims made against the district, the building moratorium or criminal claims against him.  

“[Cottonwood] was claiming I lied in front of a federal jury. Basically, I got up there and went through spreadsheets,” Edwards recalled after Tuesday’s board meeting.  

After a district court hearing in April, the court granted BSCWSD’s motion to dismiss all claims on June 9.  

“Fundamentally, it was the double-jeopardy question that was already in play where [Cottonwood tried] this case in federal court, it goes to trial, there’s a decision. And then [Cottonwood] turns around, and filed basically the same lawsuit in state district court, arguing the same case basically,” Edwards told EBS.  

During the board meeting, district attorney Susan Swimley said the data cited by the plaintiffs was obsolete and “there was very little chance the judge was going to issue that preliminary injunction” which would have paused new sewer hookups.  

Despite the favorable ruling, the district faces another sunk legal cost which is tied to the 15% increase in water and sewer rates.  

“A lot of people think it’s coming out of insurance. It’s not, because of how the cases have been filed,” Edwards said. “It’s come out of district reserves in both [court] cases.” 

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