Norman is the only city in Oklahoma where utility rates are determined by a vote of the people — who aren’t always willing to charge themselves more for water. A proposal to change that came before the city council last week. StateImpact’s Logan Layden was there to hear the debate, and reports on the lessons other cities can glean from a more democratic, but less efficient way of setting water rates.
At a time when citizens are becoming more and more incensed over government waste, letting customers vote on rate increases seems like a great way to fund expensive water system repairs and give citizens a voice. But some members of the Norman City Council, like Greg Heiple, say that city’s unique way of handling water ends up costing more.
"I came up with some estimates, and these are my guesses," Heiple says. "It has cost us in the last 40 years a quarter of a billion to a half billion dollars in cost of waiting on projects."
Heiple says when voters deny rate increases, projects have to be delayed for years and as problems compound over time, so does the price.
Trey Bates, who was on the commission that recommended changing the city charter, says rate votes don’t just cost Norman financially.
"Every single time we have one of these debates about are we going to clean our water, are we going to dispose of our water, are we going to take out the trash, are we going to recycle, what are we going to do, we have a debate that tears this community apart," Bates says.
Bates’ complaints beg the question: Why does Norman set its utility rates like this? Harold Heiple chaired the commission and was there when, in 1974, a drug bust led a Dallas paper to call Norman the drug capitol of the southwest. That angered the mayor at the time, who then used a grant to hire more police officers.
"And he was going to put them on there and they’d take care of this drug problem.," Heiple says. "And then, as kind of an aside, he said, 'of course that grant runs out July 30th — July 1st.'" The question was how to find money to pay the officers after the grant was gone.
"It had to be replaced, and the only way they did that — great big raise, a big raise, in city utility rates," Heiple says. "Just kind of out of the blue."
The public was enraged by the increase. By the following year, a successful initiative petition had taken the power to control rates away from the council and given it to the people, where it’s been ever since.
"This is not 1974. The circumstances are different," Heiple says. He suggests city government should get back the power it lost 40 years ago, and many on the council agreed … before voting against the proposal to put the idea on the ballot in November.
The political pressure was too great from residents like Steve Ellis and Mark Campbell, who cherish their right to vote on rates, and credit the current system for keeping urban sprawl in check.
"The one tool that the citizens have for sort of holding everyone’s feet to the fire to think about the costs of development is the potential that they can turn down a rate increase," Ellis says.
"I can’t fathom any councilmember seeking reelection voting to usurp the rights of citizens to vote on water rate increase proposals," Campbell says.
Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal summed up the council’s response.
"The process of an election would not be about the issues. There wouldn’t be any high-minded discussion of the financial analysis," Rosenthal says. "It would boil down simply to the flier that says “your city council, your government, wants to take away your right to vote.”
Until the charter is changed, Norman can’t forge partnerships with other cities to work on joint water projects, because it can’t guarantee citizens will decide to pay their part of the bill. Still, Norman — like many communities in Oklahoma — has an aging water system needs a lot of work. Demand is growing. So this week, when the council voted whether to join with Oklahoma City on a new pipeline from southeast Oklahoma, or focus more on reusing its own water from Lake Thunderbird to meet future water needs, the more self-reliant option was the obvious choice.
StateImpact is a collaboration of NPR member stations in Oklahoma. Find more at stateimpact.npr.org.