Water utility managers face numerous challenges including aging infrastructure, regulatory requirements, population growth, regional economic decline, and increasing scarcity of suitable water supply sources. Each of these forces create fiscal and public communication challenges, so water utilities must make the case to the elected or appointed officials in their governing boards for rate increases while keeping the focus on environmental stewardship, public health and good resource management. Because of these multitudes of objectives as well as considerations for affordability of services, presenting the need for a rate increase and obtaining the approval from the governing board can be daunting for utility/local government staff. This project provides tools for utilities that assist in their preparation for and presentation requesting rate increases when necessary.
With funding from the Water Research Foundation, the EFC at UNC worked with Arcadis Consulting, Raftelis Financial Consultants, and ABT Associates to identify and develop communication strategies and specific messages that utilities can use to gain support during their rate approval process. These communication strategies and messages are complemented with a set of scalable and ready-to-use products (tools) to support utilities and governing boards throughout this process. Through this project, the EFC and its partners:
- Researched and evaluated currently available literature related to the utility budget and rate approval processes to identify key factors influencing rate case communications
- Supplememented the available studies with research directly related to the rate approval process (e.g. the EFC partnered with ICMA to conduct an original survey of >1,400 local governments across the country)
- Developed a messaging strategy and communication framework that builds trust and supports effective communications during the budget and rate approval process
- Developed specific guidelines, processes, innovative products, and ready-to-use communication tools that support water utility use of the framework
- Created an electronic clearinghouse of utility-specific communication strategies to support peer-to-peer learning
Specifically, the EFC, partnering with ICMA, conducted an original survey of more than 1,400 local governments across the United States (both utility staff and elected officials). The survey identified what utility staff presented to the governing boards during successful rate requests, and what governing boards and utility staff found useful in the process, including rate case communication needs and information most critical to a successful rate case.
In addition, the EFC created an interactive Excel-based dashboard tool that utilities can use to present vital information to governing boards in a single-page, colorful infographic format by simply typing in the utility's basic information and uploading pictures following step-by-step instructions.
All of the resources developed for this project, including the toolkit for utilities, are available for Water Research Foundation members at the WRF project page for project #4455.
To learn more about communication strategies for water utilities, see our blog posts:
- 10 Statistically-Proven Tips for Getting Higher Water Rates Approved (Based on a Survey of >1,000 Utilities)
- Eight Communication Strategies to Help Water Utilities Get the Rates They Need
- In it for the long-haul: Water rate approvals from real communication with boards
- Get What You Need: Survey results on communicating the need for a water rate increase
- The Power of Words: Survey Results on Communicating the Need for a Water Rate Increase Part 2
Video introduction to the toolkit