City to look at why water rate increase failed

·4 min read

Jun. 7—The Norman City Council plans to find out why voters said no to a water rate increase this year in a presentation at its Tuesday night study session.

Voters were asked in the April primary election to increase the water rate from $7.50 to $9.30, and the rate for 0-5,000 gallons from $3.35 to $4.20. At least 73% of households fall into the consumption category of up to 5,000 gallons per month.

It failed by a vote of 54% against the measure.

The election results sent staff scraping for cash elsewhere, including grants available in state coffers through the American Rescue Plan Act, which primarily focuses on infrastructure improvements, including water projects.

The additional revenue would have helped the city finance a $15 million project to install automatic water meter readers and a $17 million well-blending initiative to combine groundwater and surface water to better maintain residual chlorine levels.

City staff asked for the increase to replace 300 miles of aging water lines of the city's 640 miles of pipe.

According to a preliminary survey, most voters said they did not approve the increase due to the cost and timing of the election, a report on the city's website reads. However, the council will discuss an additional survey performed by Amber Integrated, the agenda reads.

"The survey results to be presented to Council tomorrow evening will be presented by Amber Integrated Solutions, a contractor from OKC," said city spokeswoman Tiffany Vrska in a statement. "This is the statistically valid survey. It incorporates more demographics than we did in the online survey and specifically targeted Normanites that we know voted in the April election."

Vrska said the goal of both the city's online survey and Amber Integrated's was to "gain insight into election results, as well as additional understanding regarding the perspectives of residents so that the City can continue to improve services and communication."

Results from Amber Integrated were not available Monday.

The city's survey

The city's online survey was available for 14 days and drew 510 responses against 24,127 residents who voted on the measure.

Cost accounted for 23.4%, followed by 22.6% who believed developers should pay more for infrastructure improvements instead of water customers, the survey reads.

Just 3% found the increase was unnecessary.

While 50% of respondents showed "some level of trust in city government," 18% said they voted no because they did not trust the city council, mayor or government, the results reveal. The level of that trust ranged from 30% who stated "I mostly trust" against 8% who said, "I very much trust."

Those who distrust their local government accounted for 18%, but an additional question asked respondents how the city could build greater trust with residents.

Partisan politics, poor leadership or conduct topped the list of suggestions by 22% who responded.

"Negative mentions of partisan politics, ideology, left/leftist, right/right wing, etc, particularly in regard to council," the survey says.

Increasing transparency accounted for 19%, increased communication to combat misinformation topped 13% and 9% said more listening from the council with another 9% who expressed frustration with special interest groups such as "catering to business developers, public safety groups, and special project groups, OU, and a 'vocal minority,'" it reads.

While 60% of respondents say they learned about the election through mailers, 35% said they learned about it in the news media, and 57% said they relied on The Transcript to stay informed about city issues.

The top three priorities among respondents were 45% for homelessness, 32% for infrastructure and maintenance, and 32% for public safety needs, emergency management and crime.

Other business

The council will also discuss a recommendation to spend $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to fund a small business incubator, a staff report states.

The Economic Development Advisory Board [EDAB] recommended the money be used to expand an existing incubator.

"The Norman Economic Development Coalition [NEDC], a joint effort of OU [University of Oklahoma], the City of Norman, Moore Norman Technology Center and the Sooner Centurions of the Norman Chamber of Commerce, has a long history of success with its business incubator programs," the staff report reads. "It currently has the only state certified business incubator program which is 100% leased in Cleveland County and would like to expand that effort to support small business startups and entrepreneurs."

EDAB discussed the recommendation in its January meeting and later discussed in the March 1 council study session. The council will discuss an agreement today with the NEDC to disburse the money.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.