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St. Louis aldermen pass 40% water rate hike in the face of continuing repair crisis

In the foreground is a City of St. Louis water truck, with the logo visible on the door. It is parked just off a sidewalk. Down the street from it is another water truck, and further down is a yellow backhoe loader. The street all three vehicles are parked on is partially covered in water.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Water Department responded to a 20-inch water main break on June 9 in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood.

Starting July 1, St. Louis residents’ water bills will jump 20% — and another 20% on Jan. 1 — to help repair an aging system.

Households will pay an average of $15 more on the next quarterly bill. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved the increase in a 12-1 vote Friday.

“At the end of the day, it really comes down to safe, clean, reliable drinking water, and making sure that the amount of revenue coming into the Water Division is enough to cover the costs,” said Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer, 1st Ward, the bill's sponsor.

To prevent the need for another substantial rate change down the line, rates will also be adjusted to inflation starting in 2026.

It is the first time the board has approved a rate increase since 2010.

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, 8th Ward, said the board couldn’t implement smaller increases earlier because it didn’t know the division was “running in the red.”

“We can only sometimes [act] with what information we're given,” Spencer said. “I don't think it would be fair to assume that the Board of Aldermen could be intimately aware of the goings on of all city departments.”

The bill’s approval is not a surprise. Last week, aldermen defeated a motion to remove the inflation adjustment, and aldermen voted 12-2 in favor of the bill.

In early anticipation of its passage, the water department factored expected revenue from the increase into its 2024 budget.

It comes after dozens of water main breaks in the past few weeks forced the city’s Water Division to dip further into dwindling reserves. Officials said there is only $2.2 million left in the funds and warned of a fiscal crisis if more emergency repairs are needed.

Schweitzer said the department has responded to more than 180 water main breaks since October. Additionally, the department said 1,300 miles of water mains need maintenance.

The bill’s sole opponent, Sharon Tyus of the 12th Ward, said it would disproportionately affect low-income residents. She said the board should have considered using money from the city’s settlement with the Rams in 2021.

“If you're saving [that] money for some transformative future but you're burdening the people that are in the present, that's wrong,” she said.

Schweitzer said the board chose not to use settlement money without proper public input.

Alderwoman Daniela Velazquez, 6th Ward, voted in favor of the bill but agreed it would disproportionately affect low-income people.

“I do think it is our responsibility to acknowledge that and also find ways to make sure that we help the people who may not be able to afford this,” she said.

The city has at least two avenues to support low income residents – a state assistance program for water bills and a payment plan option for people who are behind on their bills.

Mayor Tishaura Jones said she will sign the bill.

"It’s been 13 years since the Board of Aldermen last adjusted our water rates, and the City of St. Louis could not afford to kick the can down the road any further,” Jones said. “A new board, under new leadership, took the difficult but important step of investing in our water system now and into the future.”

The initial increase will generate $13.4 million in revenue, with the second one in January adding $19.9 million.

Members of the board agreed the added revenue will allow the division to continue day-to-day operations and break ground on long-overdue repairs.

To keep tabs on the repairs process, the Public Infrastructure and Utilities Committee amended the original bill to require an annual report from the department. By May 1 each year, it will need to present an update on repair projects to the committee and publish the report to the Water Division website.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.