Sometime this summer, Brookfield homeowners and commercial property owners are likely to see their water bills go up by as much as 18 percent as village officials seek to put in place funding for a program to systematically begin replacing its aging water infrastructure.
That means the average water customer in Brookfield (based on using 7,856 gallons during the bimonthly billing period) could pay about $95 more per year, while those customers paying the minimum bill (about 34 percent of households) could see an annual increase of about $60, according to figures provided by Brookfield Finance Director Doug Cooper.
“That’s a big hit,” said Trustee Edward Cote, who suggested perhaps charging less, during a discussion of the subject at the village board’s March 8 committee of the whole meeting. “We are coming off of a time frame where everybody’s struggling for money.”
But, with the pace of water main replacement now moving at a snail’s pace and with 51 percent of Brookfield’s water mains – accounting for almost 31 miles — at least 100 years old and another 20 percent at least 60 years old, there’s a fear that not tackling replacement systematically could lead to more expensive, widespread emergency replacement as the pipes fail.
“I think it’s safe to say that at 100 years we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of these water mains,” Village Manager Timothy Wiberg told trustees. “The good news is we don’t have any area [showing significant failure]. The bad news is, as sure as we’re all sitting here today, these will eventually fail and they’re very expensive to replace.
“You don’t want to be addressing water mains when they’re all failing at the same time.”
The village’s current water rate of $11.47 per 1,000 gallons generates a surplus of $556,000 per year, which theoretically could be used to replace about 1,400 feet of water mains annually. At that rate, it would take 116 years to replace all of the water mains that are already 100 years old, according to Village Engineer Derek Treichel.
But the village’s progress has actually been slower than that, since the village also uses that surplus to fund other water/sewer system projects. As a result, over the past 10 years, the village has replaced just 5,300 feet of water main, or 530 feet per year.
Treichel estimated that at today’s prices, it would cost $64.9 million to replace all of the 100-year-old water mains. By raising the water rate from $11.47 to $13.50, he said, the village could generate nearly $1.3 million per year solely for water main replacement.
That amount of money could replace about 3,245 feet of pipe (about five blocks) annually, which would put the village on pace to replace all of its 100+ year water mains in 50 years.
Because construction prices will vary over time, Treichel said village officials would have to reassess the water rate structure every five years or so to make sure they kept the project on pace.
Treichel presented two other options that slowed the replacement pace to 75 years and 100 years. While that might save customers money in the short term, the risk of higher future construction prices coupled with more and more breaks could make replacement more expensive in the long run.
Trustee Brian Conroy suggested performing a condition audit of the system to identify the most at-risk sections of the system to perhaps control costs, but Trustee Michael Garvey argued that the 100-year-old pipes will continue to age and that not addressing replacement comprehensively was delaying the inevitable.
“I agree that it is a major hit to do this, but by delaying it or doing it at a slower pace, all it’s doing is passing the buck to another board,” said Garvey, who is running unopposed for mayor and will be installed in that post in May. “An audit may show that some don’t need to be done as fast, but some major work is going to need to be done, and by doing it this way we have some approximate idea that it’s going to cost $65 million.
“If we put it off and there’s a higher percentage of emergency repairs that need to be done, it’s going to grow incrementally larger.”
Trustee Katie Kaluzny suggested that in order to help residents keep bills down, the village could educate homeowners on ways to save water. Wiberg agreed that could be done, but also mentioned that lower water use would also result in lower revenues, which could affect the pace of repairs.
The Brookfield-North Riverside Water Commission, which sells Brookfield water from the city of Chicago, typically informs the village of any rate hike in May. Wiberg said that based on that information, the village could impose the fee for water main replacement in June.
“That would be the logical time to pass on whatever rate the board is comfortable with,” Wiberg said.
Village President Kit Ketchmark, who is running unopposed for trustee and will also be seated in May, indicated he supported imposing a fee to get started on a water main replacement effort.
“It’s easy not to do this, and board should have done that for a long, long time,” Ketchmark said. “But that doesn’t make the problem get any better.”