Our View: Optimism in water rate debate
The good news is all four cities — Duluth, Hermantown, Proctor, and Rice Lake — seem more than willing to sit down and to chat about rising water rates and whether Duluth is fairly charging its three smaller neighbors.
The better news is that Duluth Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery is reaching out to the others to set up a meeting, likely before the end of this month, according to Duluth Public Works and Utilities Director Jim Benning, who spoke with the News Tribune Opinion page late last week.
So there's reason — plenty of reason — for optimism after the Duluth Public Utilities Commission and Duluth City Council took action to raise Hermantown's, Proctor's, and Rice Lake's water rates 4.7 percent a year each of the next six years, in line with water-rate hikes approved for residential customers. Because the ensuing bills will be higher than what some large industrial and commercial customers are expected to be paying and because Duluth's neighbors suspect they're being charged more than it actually costs Duluth to draw, treat and deliver to them water from Lake Superior, the neighbors formally appealed the rate plan to the state Public Utilities Commission.
There's reason for optimism, nonetheless, in everyone's apparent willingness to negotiate, as reflected in the comments they're making publicly. This dispute can be settled amicably and neighborly — and without an expensive and potentially divisive and ugly lawsuit. There's little reason to believe it can't happen.
The possibility of a lawsuit was suggested by Proctor Mayor Phil Larson in an interview with a News Tribune reporter. "There are no real winners in a lawsuit," he said in the Jan. 1 story, headlined, "Duluth, neighbors at odds over water rates."
But in that same story, Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said, "Duluth is looking forward to hearing more about the concerns of Proctor, Rice Lake and Hermantown, and we'll try to work with them to resolve these issues."
Johnson also said: "City administration is committed to sitting down with Proctor, Hermantown, and Rice Lake and discussing the rates, trying to find a fair solution for all the users."
In an interview late last week with the News Tribune Opinion page, Duluth City Councilor and Duluth Public Utilities Commission member Joel Sipress said, referring to Duluth's neighbors, "There is a process for determining the merits of their position. ... There are appropriate mechanisms to resolve this."
Sipress was talking about the prospect of an update to a rate study done about six years ago. All four cities can decide together who'd do an update as well as other details to ensure all feel they are being treated fairly and so the outcome can be one acceptable to all of them, even if everyone isn't particularly pleased.
"We're all neighbors. We should be able to work together," Hermantown Mayor Wayne Boucher said in a separate interview with the Opinion page. "We just have to agree on how we treat each other. ... We'll just see how the process plays out. We're all willing to talk about it."
That in itself is reason for optimism for an amicable and fair solution.