Where can you take the least expensive shower? Who charges the most to flip the on-off switch? Where's the cheapest place to flush a toilet? Which city dumps your garbage without trashing your pocketbook?
Fees for essential municipal services vary significantly among cities in Utah Valley, according to a Deseret News survey of 11 Utah County cities.The combined cost for water, sewer, power and garbage collection is least expensive in Provo and Orem, the valley's two largest cities. Residents in the southern part of Utah County generally pay more for those services than do people living in the north.
Water comes cheap for residents of Orem, not so cheaply for Lindon residents. Electric bills are lower for Provo households than for homes in Payson, Spring-ville and Spanish Fork. The two biggest cities, however, are near the top of the heap when it comes to hauling away trash. Provo's proposed rate increase would make it the king of the hill.
Spanish Fork narrowly emerged with the highest combined fees, as it did in a similar Deseret News survey in 1989. The city, however, will lose that unwanted title to Lehi when a sewer bond is paid off in about two months.
Orem, which had the lowest total cost, recently completed its own countywide study of utility rates.
"We think we come out pretty well. We do compare favorably, obviously," Phil Goodrich, Orem director of administrative services, told the City Council this month. "This is comparing apples to apples."
Nevertheless, there are factors unique to cities that skew any attempt to compare rates. Maybe Orem compared apples to apples. But were they Granny Smiths to Galas? Jonathans to Golden De-li-cious?
"It's hard to do a study like this when you don't have compatibility," said Dave Gunn, Provo public services director. Provo also did a water and sewer rate comparison two months ago. Its findings are close but not identical to Orem's.
The Deseret News used water, sewer and power rates provided by 11 Utah County cities and Utah Power to calculate a monthly charge for those services based on uniform usage standards. Culinary water use was reduced for cities that provide irrigation systems and monthly charges for that water was added in. Garbage pick-up fees are flat and don't require any math.
Water is especially difficult to get a handle on.
Some cities have secondary water systems for lawns and gardens. Lindon, for example, charges a flat fee for irrigation water based on lot size. Most houses are built on half-acre or larger lots whereas homes in Provo and Orem are typically built on quarter-acre lots. The more irrigation water one uses in Lindon, the cheaper the rate per gallon.
Cities that have their own power departments, particularly those south of Provo, charge considerably more for electricity than do municipalities that contract with Utah Power.
The Public Service Commission sets rates for Utah Power customers such as American Fork, Lindon and Orem. City-operated electric departments establish their own rates based on what it costs them to run the system.
Larry Ellertson, Utah Power manager, said he believes it's safe to say those cities look at Utah Power when they set their fees in an attempt to be competitive.
Payson's power superintendent Ronnie Crump expressed surprise that the city's electric bills are among the highest in the county, according to the study. "I don't know why. I wish I had an answer," he said.
Rates in Springville and Spanish Fork, however, are higher.
Provo's refuse collection fees could be the highest in the county if the City Council approves a proposed $1 increase to $10.50 per month. Gunn said Provo needs to raise the rate to offset higher dumping charges imposed last summer at the landfill.
Gunn defends the high cost because the city offers more than just trash collection. He said it's unfair to compare the Provo Sanitation Department to cities that contract with a private provider, which most do in Utah Valley. He sent the Deseret News a list of what his department does compared to what a hauling operation does.
Under hauling operation he wrote: "A). Haul garbage." Under Provo City Sanitation he composed an A-to-Z list including such things as recycle yard waste, clean up parks, underwrite other city functions and distribute free leaf bags in the fall.
"That's the cost you get for having a clean city," Gunn said.
Some trash haulers, however, do a little more than truck rubbish. BFI provides recycling bins in Alpine for cardboard, newspapers and aluminum cans.