Jenkins explains rate hikes

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 2, 2007

JACKSON – There were two options facing Northampton County Manager Wayne Jenkins.

Upon putting the final touches on his proposed 2007-08 county budget, Jenkins realized that the water and solid waste enterprise systems would fall short in operational service fees for the new fiscal year, one that started on Saturday, July 1.

He could raise taxes to fill the void. His only other option was to increase the service fees that fuel these enterprise funds.

In a year where the tax rate declined by 10 cents (falling from .88 per $100 of valuation to .78), Jenkins felt that adding the 4.3 cents necessary to balance the two enterprise funds would take the luster off the new lower tax rate.

So, he used option two n an increase in user fees to balance the enterprise funds.

“The county began operating the water/sewer program as an enterprise system in the mid 1980’s and since that time no Northampton County tax dollars have gone into the operation of the system,” Jenkins said. “The revenue needed to operate the system and pay debt service is generated solely from water and sewer fees.”

Jenkins went on to say the water/sewer program must be operated as an enterprise system because not all citizens living in the county have access to county water.

Currently, the system – one with six deep wells, 13 elevated water tanks and nearly 250 miles of water mains – serves approximately 5,000 customers. However, there remain approximately 2,100 families living in the county that do not have access to the county water system.

“That is the one reason why we should not use tax money to support the water and sewer system,” Jenkins said. “It is not fair to tax property owners to support the water system when the property owners do not have access to the service for which they are being taxed.”

During the budget process, Jenkins earmarked $2.55 million for the water/sewer system. Upon figuring the revenue for the upcoming year, Jenkins realized the fund would fall $170,000 short. He knew that one cent on the tax rate would generate $172,000. He also knew that a $1 increase in the flat monthly rate (0-2,000 gallons) plus a 50-cent monthly hike in the per-thousand fee for water usage over 2,000 gallons would net the system exactly $170,000.

That hike was later approved by the Northampton Board of Commissioners, increasing the flat rate from $18 to $19 per month and the per-thousand fee for anything over 2,000 gallons monthly from $4.50 to $5. In layman’s terms, an average customer using 4,000 gallons per month would see their bill increase from $27 to $29.

It marks the first water/sewer rate increase since 2005.

Another rate increase was used in lieu of a tax hike to balance the county’s solid waste/recyclable curbside collection program.

As he did in the case of the water/sewer fund, Jenkins discovered during his budget process that the solid waste program would fall just over $570,000 short in revenue during 2007-08. It would take an additional 3.3 cents on the tax rate to make up the difference.

Again, not wanting to take the luster off the new lower tax rate, Jenkins opted for a rate increase to balance the solid waste enterprise fund, a program that began in 1993 and includes the weekly curbside pick-up and disposal of household solid waste plus a recyclable collection and disposal program. The fund also pays for the operation of the county’s landfill properties, yard waste facility, used oil collection, lead acid battery collection, used tire disposal, brown and white goods collection program and scrap metal program.

The program is supported solely from annual availability fees, tipping fees and state reimbursement grants for used tires and white goods.

Previously, there was a $120.60 annual availability fee assessed against all improved properties in the county to support the solid waste enterprise fund. By increasing that fee to $174.50 annually (a nominal $53.90 yearly hike), it would balance the $1.94 million needed to operate the solid waste program.

Jenkins said the solid waste program, one where the rate has not increased since 1998, is a one-price service to all county landowners.

“It costs the same amount to deliver the solid waste program to the homeowner who owns a $50,000 home as it does to the homeowner who owns a $400,000 home,” Jenkins said. “The farmer who owns agricultural land is not taxed on the land he tends for solid waste services, but instead pays the same availability fee for the service he receives at his home.”

Jenkins noted that combined, a 4.3 cent tax increase would have been needed to fill the revenue shortfalls in the water/sewer system and the solid waste program, thus taking the new tax rate from 78 cents to 82.3 cents per $100 of value.

Instead, the shortfall will be supplemented, in a fair and equal manner, by those using these services.