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Ahoskie water rates cause stir

AHOSKIE – The reality of Ahoskie’s new water/sewer rates came home to roost here Tuesday morning.

With a standing room only crowd in attendance, the Ahoskie Town Council, during their regularly scheduled monthly meeting, listened as town residents and business owners voiced their opinions on the new rates. Those opinions ranged from disbelief, to grave concern, to outrage.

In June, the Council, during approval of the 2009-10 fiscal year budget, passed a new rate/fee schedule, one that included a hike in town-provided water/sewer service. The new rates promoted water conservation; on the low end ($35.15 per month for water/sewer) for those customers using not more than 2,000 gallons. (The old rate for the same usage was $34.05).

When the water usage reaches 3,000 gallons or more in a month’s period is where the new and old rates differ. The old monthly rate for 3,000 gallons was $44 and increased $9.95 for each 1,000 gallons beyond that level. Under the new fee schedule, Ahoskie water users pay a monthly rate of $62.15 for 3,000 gallons with a $9 hike per 1,000 gallons up to the 5,000-gallon level.

After that, the additional per 1,000-gallon charge is sporadic (a $21 difference between 5,000 and 6,000 gallons, but only an $11 increase between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons). The additional 1,000-gallon rate reaches a level of uniformity at 11,000 gallons. From that point until 20,000 gallons, there is a $13 increase per each 1,000 gallons.

On Tuesday, residents and business owners vented their frustrations over the new rates. While all had their personal gripes, only Hal Daniels, a retired pharmacist whose son, Henry Daniels, owns three laundromats and two car washes in town, offered a solution.

“At these rates, Ahoskie will have five more empty buildings in a couple of months,” Hal Daniels said regarding his son’s businesses.

Stating that those businesses each use in excess of 100,000 gallons per month, Daniels said his son’s combined commercial water bill for July was $5,270 compared to $2,782 in June (under the old rate). He said the summer months were typically a slow period for his son’s businesses, adding that the combined water bill could easily exceed $10,000 monthly during the peak period (November through April).

“We have always been proud of our (town’s) logo – ‘Ahoskie, the Only One’,” Hal Daniels remarked. “We can now add to that distinction…Ahoskie, the city with the highest water rates in our part of the state.”

To back-up that statement, Daniels alluded to research he had performed on municipal water rates in eastern North Carolina. He based his remarks on the 100,000 gallon category for commercial accounts (in Ahoskie, that bill would come to $1,744.35). In comparison, Windsor’s rate is $441.75; Rocky Mount is $656; Greenville is $716.87; Williamston is $757; Edenton is $861.85; Elizabeth City is $951.17; and Murfreesboro is $1,059.24.

“The town of Ahoskie should be encouraging small businesses to grow and prosper; that’s not happening here, you’re running them out of business,” Hal Daniels said. “You may ask why my son doesn’t raise his rate to cover his increased costs. I say that in an economically deprived area such as ours, it’s impossible to raise his prices sufficiently high enough to offset his water and sewer prices.”

Responding on his own accord, Henry Daniels told the council that he and his family loved Ahoskie and that he had personally invested hundreds of hours in a civic-minded fashion.

“I can’t survive as a businessman with this increase,” he stressed. “Local businesses are struggling enough with today’s economy without this water increase.”

Henry Daniels noted that his five businesses made him the second largest water customer in the town, trailing only Roanoke-Chowan Hospital.

Hal Daniels offered three options…(1) rescind the increase of water rates for this category of businesses (water dependant) and freeze them against any future price increases; (2) drop the sewer charges ($955 monthly for a commercial customer using at least 100,000 gallons); and (3) create a new class for businesses, specifically for laundromats and carwashes, with a price schedule frozen at the rates used prior to July 1, 2009.

He asked council to consider holding an emergency meeting in the next 24-to-48 hours to consider the options.

The Daniels’ were not the only local businessmen to complain loudly over the new water rates.

“Ahoskie is not trying to run us out of business, but they are making it difficult for us to do business in Ahoskie,” noted Jamie Johnson who operates Ace Hardware and the car wash on Church Street. “Ahoskie is not conducive to attracting new businesses.”

Johnson continued, “This is an unfair rate. The cost of doing business is exceeding our profit margins. This tier system you have approved is penalizing the water users – carwashes, laundromats, dry cleaners and motels. Don’t penalize us for being a water user. Give us a flat rate.”

Johnson added that water-dependent businesses may have to pass on these costs (to its customers) or else close. He also said these high rates could lead business owners to make cuts in personnel in order to offset the rising overhead.

Lee Williford, who owns the Wash House (laundromat), said Ahoskie is placing the burden on the water-dependent businesses to help pay for the town’s wastewater treatment plant expansion (an $18 million project already underway).

“We don’t have a water shortage here, so the town is making us pay for treating the water we use,” Williford stated. “This upsets me. We’ve become more energy efficient, investing tens of thousands of dollars in updated equipment, and now this. I hope you can come up with a better solution than what you have now.”

Stan Dixon of Dixon Dry Cleaners said the new water rates were…“a rude awakening.”

“This hurts us all,” he said. “There are a lot of things that should have been addressed in Ahoskie 15 years ago, but they weren’t. Now it seems we’re playing catch-up all at one time. You need to stay on top of things on a daily basis, just as we do as business owners.”

Richard Jernigan, whose family owns Jernigan Dry Cleaners, pointed out that his business will eventually feel the impact of these new water rates.

“The citizens of Ahoskie will have to spend more on their water bills, leading them to spend less on services like ours,” Jernigan noted.

Hal Liverman, who owns rental property in Ahoskie, said the town’s new impact fees and water rates are a deterrent to Ahoskie’s future growth.

“Has the town accomplished anything (with these new fees),” he asked. “What I’ve seen is zero growth and an exodus from town.”

Ease Lassiter, who purchased several old tobacco warehouses in town and tore them down, said the plans he had for development are now…“out the window.”

“Look around you…look at all the ‘For Sale’ signs in town; people are hauling butt out of town,” Lassiter said.

Also speaking out at Tuesday’s 95-minute public input session were Ahoskie’s everyday citizens. In each case, they showed their distaste for the water rate increases, some citing hikes of $75 or more.

“I’m on a fixed income and I can’t afford this,” said James Futrell, adding that his July bill was $84.

Margaret Speller said her household was using 7,000 gallons a month, but had dropped that to below 5,000, yet received a water bill for over $100 for the very first time.

Another resident, Margaret Ferguson, said there were two people in her household and they only used 3,000 gallons…“most of the time”….but saw her monthly bill increase from $48 to $83.

“We were not forewarned about this increase,” noted Thelma Sanders. “We’re not getting a fair shake. Some cannot afford this…my husband and I can’t.”

Pauline Moore said she lives alone, but her bill is…“sky high.”

“I use the same amount of water each month,” she said, “but now my bill is over $100.”

“These new water rates are inexcusable,” said Donald Kirkland. “Our streets are in bad shape and drugs and gangs are out of control. We pay taxes and expect results. If you (council) can’t produce results, I ask that you step down.”