City council passes budget

Council approves significant water and sewer rate increases, money for municipal ambulance

Water rates in Springfield will rise 32% beginning March 1 and another 32% a year later after contentious debate among City Council members and a 7-3 vote on Feb. 20.

“We don’t have a choice,” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said of the increases, the first since 2011.

He blamed prior city councils and prior mayoral administrations for inaction that led to City Water, Light & Power’s water division becoming cash-strapped and ill-prepared to deal with state-mandated lead line replacements and other infrastructure improvements.

But Ward 6 Ald. Jennifer Notariano, one of three council members voting against the increases, told Hanauer, “We do have a choice.”

She said the combined increase, which will total 74% after two years compared with current rates, is too high and “not necessary.”

Notariano said many residents will be financially harmed by the hikes, estimated to increase the average residential customer's water bill by $4 or $5 a month in the first year, plus another $5 to $7 a month additional cost in the second year. 

click to enlarge City council passes budget
City Water, Light & Power's Dallman Generating Station is next to Lake Springfield and Interstate 55. CWLP will raise water rates in Springfield 32% beginning March 1 and another 32% a year later, money the utility says is needed to deal with state-mandated lead line replacements and other infrastructure improvements.
She proposed amendments to cap any water rate increases beyond the two 32% increases at 4% or 5% in 2026 and future years rather than whatever the Consumer Price Index dictates. But those amendments failed by votes of 6-4 and 7-3, respectively.

When the proposed 4% cap deadlocked on a 5-5 vote, Mayor Misty Buscher broke the tie among the 10 alderpersons by voting against the cap.

Several voting against the caps said they wanted to give CWLP more financial latitude to deal with future inflation and cost increases.

Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams Jr., who joined Notariano and Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory in voting against the increases, said he wasn’t convinced all of the $18.4 million to be raised by new rates in the next two years would be needed.

“There’s always a way around this,” he said. “We can fix this without taking it out on our citizens.”

The council also approved 32% annual sewer rate increases for the fiscal year beginning March 1 and the following fiscal year. That vote, with nine alderpersons voting “yes” and Williams voting “present,” lacked the debate that preceded the water rate decision.

The increase in sewer rates – the first since July 2022 – will pay for sewer system improvements mandated by the federal government and other needed improvements but not for the treatment of sewage, Chief City Engineer Nate Bottom said. The increases will generate about $6 million over the next two years, he said.

Sewage treatment is handled by another unit of local government, the Sangamon County Water Reclamation District.

The debate about water rates came during the same four-hour-long meeting where the council adopted a $680 million-plus city budget for fiscal 2025.

The budget included a corporate fund of more than $190 million, which funds police, fire and public works departments and other core city services. The budget also funds the operations of CWLP, the city’s municipally owned utility.

The budget passed unanimously and included $12 million in spending from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. That money represents the last of $33.8 million in ARPA funds received by the city to deal with ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changes made to the budget before final passage included plans for the city to borrow $10 million for the ongoing construction of three new fire stations.

The borrowing will reduce part of the $23 million in corporate fund spending and $7 million in ARPA spending that had been budgeted for fiscal 2024. The borrowing will free up corporate fund dollars to pay for increases in the new fiscal year budget, Buscher administration officials said.

The budgetary changes also reduced originally proposed pension payments by $5 million, but the new budget still maintains payments of 100% of state-mandated minimum levels.

The council considered, but ultimately voted against, a proposed amendment by Ward 4 Ald. Larry Rockford to remove $280,000 from the fiscal 2025 budget that had been set aside for the purchase of a vehicle to start a municipally operated ambulance service.

Rockford said he hasn’t decided whether he supports such a service to supplement what is provided by the two for-profit and one nonprofit ambulance services operating in Springfield. But he said the issue needs more study before money is included in the city budget for an ambulance.

Ward 7 Ald. Brad Carlson said he opposed the amendment because leaving the money in the budget would “elevate the discussion” and give local hospitals, providers and city officials more of an incentive to have in-depth discussions on the pros and cons of a potential municipally operated ambulance service.

The council vote on Rockford’s amendment was 5-4. Voting against the amendment, along with Carlson, were Hanauer and alderpersons Chuck Redpath of Ward 1, Erin Conley of Ward 8 and Jim Donelan of Ward 9. Voting for the amendment were Rockford, Gregory, Williams, Rockford and Notariano.

Ward 5 Ald. Lakeisha Purchase said she voted “present” because she sits on the board of the nonprofit ambulance provider, MedicsFirst of Springfield.

The budget also includes $250,000 in ambulance supplies.

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