Consultants working with Delaware city officials have reduced the projected cost to upgrade the city's aging water plant from $31-million to $25-million, but that will not keep water rates from going up beginning May 1.

Consultants working with Delaware city officials have reduced the projected cost to upgrade the city's aging water plant from $31-million to $25-million, but that will not keep water rates from going up beginning May 1.

The upgrades needed to meet new standards required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be done in two phases.

"The situation we are facing tonight is being played out in small communities around the country. They are facing rate increases as we are because of the EPA requirements," city manager Tom Homan told city council at its March 22 meeting.

"We're trying to be proactive and minimize the impact on our rate payers," he said.

City council held a public hearing March 22 on proposed utility rates for 2010 that cover water, sewer and refuse collection. No one spoke in opposition. A third reading of the rate ordinances will be held prior to a vote at council's April 12 meeting.

Under the proposal, the rates for water, sewer and refuse collection for the average residential customer who uses 800 cubic feet of water a month would increase by $5.38, going from $88.24 to $93.62, beginning May 1.

That would be a 6.1-percent increase, Delaware finance director Dean Stelzer said, which is less than the 9.26-percent increase in 2009.

While the sewer and refuse proposed rates are for one year, council is being asked to approve water rate increases for the next three years "in advance of starting construction of the planned water improvements" to meet new federal guidelines, Stelzer told council.

The city opened its water plant in 1889, and some of the original plant and transmission system still remains after 120 years, city spokesman Lee Yoakum said, including a 16-inch water transmission main. The last expansion was done in 1974 to meet federal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.

The new water quality standards will take effect Oct. 1, 2013. To meet those requirements, the city is planning several water system projects, including new water transmission lines, a groundwater membrane processing plant and water plant rehabilitation, Yoakum said.

Work must be under way to bring the system up to the new standards prior to that date or the city could face fines by the EPA, said Brad Stanton, the city's director of public utilities.

Also at the meeting, council voted 7-0 to approve a new three-year contract for the city's firefighters that will give them 2-percent raises each year, retroactive to April 1, 2009 when the previous contract expired.

"These are certainly difficult times for negotiation, but we were able to come to a mutual agreement without any kind of binding arbitration," assistant city manager Allen Rothermel told council.

The union also agreed to a change in health insurance rates, he said. Instead of paying a flat monthly fee, as they have in the past, firefighters will now pay a percentage.

For example, a firefighter on a family plan paid $30 a month under the old contract and will now pay 4 percent, or about $60, under the new contract, Rothermel said.

cpreston@thisweeknews.com