The Hailey City Council directed city staff Monday to explore a plan to reduce the cost of water to irrigate its parks by implementing a special rate for the city based on how many residential lots could hypothetically be built at the parks.

The plan would reset fees for the city’s high-volume parks irrigation by comparing it to multiple residential water accounts that would be irrigated on the same amount of acreage, but at a lower-tiered rate.

Hailey City Councilman Pat Cooley, who works as water supervisor for the city of Ketchum, said the plan would be “reasonable, understandable and defensible.”

Ketchum has no special rate for city parks irrigation.

Public Works Director Brian Yeager has been working in recent months to formulate a plan that could save the city tens of thousands of dollars each year in irrigation costs.

Yeager said during a City Council meeting in April that his goal is based on the fact that the city’s 38 acres of parks are used by thousands of people each year, and that the cost burden for their irrigation should be shared more equitably.

“City parks are assessed water fees that are primarily incurred at the highest tiered rate per gallon,” Yeager stated in a memo this week. “This rate is inconsistent with other comparable uses and limits the ability [of the city] to provide needed maintenance items from occurring such as fertilizer, herbicide, composting or staffing ability.”

The city’s efforts in recent years to reduce water consumption have included water metering and a tiered-rate water fee structure that increases costs rapidly for the highest-volume users.

The highest tiered rate of 150,000 gallons or more per month, used primarily by schools, the Blaine County Recreation District and the city parks of Hailey, was increased several years ago from $4 to $5.28 per 1,000 gallons, and remains there today.

Those changes led to a 39 percent decrease in overall city water consumption, but the cost of water for irrigation for Hailey’s parks rose by 12 percent.

Yeager said a typical home in Northridge spends about $2.51 per 1,000 gallons of water. He said city parks are usually charged about $5 for the same amount, due to the higher monthly volumes consumed.

On Monday, Yeager recommended capping city park water fees at a maximum rate equivalent to the fifth-tier water-user rate, currently set at $2.20 per 1,000 gallons, a change that he said would have to be compensated for by increasing rates elsewhere by 5.7 percent to make up for a shortfall in funding to operate the city’s water system.

The City Council instead directed Yeager to explore one of his other proposed options, which would assess city park irrigation fees based on a comparable number of residential lots.

Yeager’s preliminary estimate indicated that 181 lots could be built on the city’s parks, but he said he would further explore details and come back to the City Council with better data, including a possible new fee for the city parks.

The fiscal 2019 water division budget for the city is $1,164,031. Yeager said 75 percent of that figure, $873,023, comes from user fees.

While water use could be reduced due to increased conservation, the water system operating budget must be covered for the system to operate.

“If we do this [reduce fees for city parks], water fees will go up. If we have more conservation, water fees will also go up,” Yeager said.

Another consideration is that the Blaine County School District could soon stop irrigating the Hailey Elementary School campus from the city’s potable water system, instead using an irrigation well of its own.

“It would necessitate a corresponding water-user fee increase to offset the loss of that income,” Yeager wrote in a memo.

The public hearing was continued to June 10.

In other Hailey news:

The City Council approved and conducted a first reading of an ordinance that would add “individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities” and “group home” to the zoning code definition of a residential care facility.

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