Ahoskie water debate continues

Published 9:39 am Thursday, October 15, 2009

AHOSKIE – The town of Ahoskie responded to questions from some of its corporate citizens here Tuesday.

During the regular monthly meeting of the Ahoskie Town Council, answers were given to Ahoskie businessman Stan Dixon, who at the September council meeting had presented a list of questions about the town’s way of doing business.

Dixon’s questions stem from a months-long debate over water and sewer rates in the town of Ahoskie. Both Dixon and Hal Daniels, who called himself a spokesman for Ahoskie car wash and laundromat owners, expressed their desire for the town to change water and sewer rates.

The conversation between the town and the car wash and laundromat owners has been on-going for the past three months. Daniels’ son, Henry, owns three laundromats and two car washes in town. His monthly bill increased from $2,782 in June to $5,270 in July when the town’s new rates came into effect.

After hearing from the group, the Ahoskie Town Council made changes to the fee schedules that lowered the monthly rates for those and other users.

Dixon and Hal Daniels, among other business owners, have said the reductions simply were not enough.

Tuesday, Dixon was presented with an answer to the questions he raised concerning both the general fund and enterprise fund budgets. The answers were presented during the meeting, a fact which did not sit well with Dixon.

“I understand you want the upper hand,” Dixon said after receiving the answers in a sealed envelope. “If I handled business like this, I’d be out of business.”

Dixon said he could not respond to the answers because he had not reviewed them.

Councilman Ronald Gatling asked if the town had been communicating with Dixon and Mayor Linda Blackburn said she had responded in a letter to let him know the answers were not complete and that she had asked that the town’s responses be reviewed by the Institute of Government and the North Carolina League of Municipalities.

“This is a very serious issue,” the mayor said to Dixon. “Many of the questions are important, but many were answered at the budget hearings which you did not attend. These are the answers to the best of our abilities.”

Blackburn said the answers were not completed and reviewed until last week and then were included in the packages sent to the members of the council. She said she was not comfortable releasing them until the board had an opportunity to review them.

Dixon reiterated his frustration, saying he felt the issue was handled in a “totally wrong manner.”

After Dixon took his seat, Daniels came before the board asking again for changes in the water rates. He asked that a separate category of billing be established for 100 percent water dependent businesses such as laundromats and car washes with rates rolled back to those of June 1 and that those rates be frozen.

Daniels said he understood the need for the wastewater treatment facility and that he understood the $800,000 loan payment (for the new plant) must be made, but felt the impact would be small for the town.

Mayor Blackburn said the town had already reduced rates once and would be reviewing the issue in February.

“There’s an $800,000 payment out here that has to be made,” the mayor said. “I agree that businesses should be prepared for major expenses and maybe we weren’t as prepared as we should have been, but we have to pay that bill.”

Daniels said the businesses could not survive six months and asked Jamie Johnson, who owns a car wash in town, if he could survive. Johnson said he couldn’t unless help was received.

Gatling asked Henry Daniels if the changes already made to the water rates had helped and was told “not much.” Hal Daniels said the $5,270 bill in July would have been roughly $4,000 under the new rate structure.

After discussion with Daniels, Mayor Blackburn recognized Dixon again.

Dixon said he had reviewed the answers to the questions provided by the town and went through them. He said he would do more investigation on some of them and was satisfied with others.

“What I’m trying to accomplish is for you to understand there are avenues to work around the water and sewer rates,” Dixon said. “We’re in it all together. I probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t affect me, if it wasn’t taking money out of my back pocket.”

Dixon said it was a tough time for all business owners and that everyone was trying to pinch and save and that the water and sewer rates made it difficult to be successful.

He added there were many things municipalities did that people did not agree with and the same was true at every level of government.

After Dixon discussed the questions with the town board, Daniels was allowed to close his time before the council.

He asked if each board member understood what the rates were doing to the businesses in question. There was no response from the council.

“I’ll take it by your silence that you know, you just don’t care,” Daniels said.

Mayor Blackburn and Ahoskie Town Councilman O.S. “Buck” Suitor answered that the comment was untrue.

“Absolutely not,” Blackburn said.

Daniels then asked again if the board was going to reconsider his request and he was told it would be looked at in February.