Water rate increase suggested

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2005

JACKSON – The results are in.

After several months of intense research, Eddie West of the Wilmington based Masonboro Group, Inc., dispersed findings from efficiency studies performed on the Northampton Detention Center and the Public Works Department.

Earlier last year Auditor Bryan Starnes of Martin Starnes and Associates recommended that the county contract the studies in order to locate areas in need of improvement and foster increased productivity and cost efficiency.

The contract landed in the hands of the Masonboro Group who agreed to conduct the study on the Public Works Department for a cost of $6,750 and the county jail for $6,000.

In the area of water and sewer, the study found that one-third of the accounts were in arrears and that 78 percent of the department’s vehicles had an excess of 100,000 miles, three having over 200,000 miles.

Additionally, the department saw a nine percent increase in parts and equipment. West noted the need to take action against aging infrastructure in Garysburg and suggested software be used to its maximum potential, which it was not currently doing due to need for training.

A rate survey reflected a $15 base rate per 2,000 gallons for the county’s water/sewer usage with other rates in the region falling between $6.50-$23 per 2,000 gallons, depending on the number of customers.

The study also found that 14 and one half individuals are employed to provide leadership services and that the county spent $37,842.73 in overtime pay for FY 2003-2004.

To scale back expenses, West gave some short-term suggestions, including eliminating the position of Water and Sewer Supervisor and reorganizing public works crews into service teams responsible for designated areas of the county.

He suggested having one person serving as a team leader and one employee on &uot;flex time&uot; to reduce overtime expenditures, which he claimed would save the county approximately $60,000.

He also thought the job description for the part-time office position should be modified to include only duties associated with quality control issues related to notification and collection of accounts in arrears.

A one-time rate increase from $15 per 2,000 gallons to $20 per 2,000 gallons was recommended for immediate implementation with annual rate increases made consistent with the consumer index.

&uot;If you enact this initial increase, you will see an increased revenue of $286,500,&uot; said West, who described the action as imperative to the fiscal health of the county.

He also recommended the county make it possible for customers to pay using credit cards or phone check to reduce the number of accounts in arrears and suggested automatically cutting off services on accounts in arrears in excess of 30 days.

&uot;While this might appear to be a somewhat harsh remedy in tight economic times, it is apparent that many of the same customers are habitually in arrears,&uot; West said, adding that legal action should be taken to collect past due amounts.

He also suggested that the county submit written notification to the vendor of the Logics software stating that no further quarterly maintenance payments would be made until all personnel who use the software had a complete understanding of how to maximize its use.

According to the study, the county pays approximately $820 quarterly to the company, but has achieved little success in securing the necessary technical assistance.

Handling vehicle repairs internally were recommended for jobs under $200 versus contracting the work out with an informal bidding process for work over $200, which West estimates would save the county about $3,000 a year. Professional development for the water and sewer staff was also highlighted.

For the long-term, West suggested placing all vehicles, equipment and systems on a planned replacement cycle to reduce emergencies and repair costs as well as converting to an electronic meter-reading system and updating the existing infrastructure.

West commented that the conversion to electronic meters would free up public works to do other necessary things like painting water towers and would also reduce illegal hook ups.

&uot;What you’ve got is, for lack of better terminology, a lot of bootleggin’ going on,&uot; said West. &uot;This would improve your efficiency and effectiveness.&uot;

Overall, West estimated that if the county implemented the short-term recommendations, it should see a revenue increase of no less than $346,500. However, he cautioned to place a minimum of 20 percent annually into the contingency fund in case of emergency with the other 80 percent to be used for implementing the long-term goals.

Similarly, the study reviewed the county’s detention center and revealed areas of improvement.

Data from the study revealed that the staff detainee ratios were higher than all but one benchmark detention facility, causing an increased risk in security.

It also found that the county is losing substantial revenue by housing non-reimbursable inmates.

&uot;Two-thirds of the detainees at the center are incarcerated for failure to pay child support,&uot; West said, backed by figures provided by the detention center’s administrator.

In addition to shelling out approximately $47.90 per day, $862.20 per month or $314,703 per year for each such inmate, the county will suffer a loss of revenue due to a terminated contract with Currituck County, effective the first of January.

Currituck was paying the Northampton County Detention Center $40 per day to house its inmates. The average cost for detention is $54.06 per day. In 2003, the detention center received $47,625 in revenue for housing inmates outside the county.

According to West, the state only provides $18 per day for inmates housed 30 days or more after sentencing.

On the upside, the daily cost of detainees for Northampton was below the average for benchmark facilities and food expenses were found to be extremely low at a fixed price of $2.14 per inmate meal contracted through NC Department of Corrections, Odom Correctional Unit.

&uot;You can’t find a better deal than that,&uot; West said.

The facility also scored points by handling its own laundry on site rather than contracting out for services.

West recommended repairing the ceiling in the old jail to enhance security and minimize heating and cooling expenses and suggested remodeling a portion of it for a future call center, which would help with cash flow.

He also recommended staff schedules be modified to impact work schedules and suggested that the County Manager, Commissioners, legislators and other county officials meet with local Judges and members of the Judiciary to discuss implementing an electronic monitoring program for those that would otherwise be held in the detention center for &uot;civil contempt, pretrial/pre-sentence or serving less than 30 days&uot;.

&uot;Instead of paying $47.91 per day, it would cost $3 per day to rent the unit and individuals who need to work to satisfy child support obligations would be able to do so,&uot; West said.

The program is projected to have an annual savings of $200,000, not including back child support payments ranging from $2,000-$20,000.

West highly recommended that two additional staff members be added to the detention center as soon as possible.

&uot;They run a tight ship out there, but for security and other reasons, it’s imperative that they have those two extra people,&uot; West said.

If the county decides to implement these recommendations, West anticipates that the Northampton County Detention Center could operate fiscally within its existing budgetary parameters.

Currently, the detention center operates on a fixed budget of $890,000 per year.

West commended the water and sewer teams for their sensitivity to the needs and concerns of their customers and their willingness to go the extra mile in service.

He also offered kudos to the Sheriff Wardie Vincent and detention center staff for their commitment to serve the county and surrounding areas.

Vice Chair Robert Carter echoed a suggestion made by Commissioner Fannie Greene to hold a workshop to discuss the issue and further requested

Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins to provide the pros and cons of potential decisions regarding the recommendations.

No deadline for the information was given.