Water rate debate lingers

Published 9:28 am Thursday, December 17, 2009

AHOSKIE – The debate continues.

Four months after the Town of Ahoskie increased water/sewer user fees, at least two local businessmen continue to scold town officials for what they deem as excessively high rates. This comes after Ahoskie officials restructured those rates in mid-August following public outcry at the council’s meeting earlier that same month.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Hal Daniels and Stan Dixon used the public input portion of the agenda to address the issue. Daniels – whose son, Henry, owns three laundromats and two car washes in town – and Dixon, owner of Dixon Cleaners, are no strangers to council members. Both men have addressed the water/sewer rate hikes, ones that took effect on July 1, at previous meetings.

For Hal Daniels, it marked his fourth appearance before council.

“As I have asked in the past, my request is simple, create a separate commercial class for 100 percent water dependent businesses, such as car washes and laundromats, and roll the water/sewer rates to pre-July and freeze them at that level,” Daniels pleaded. “In view of these high water rates, individuals and small businesses are struggling to pay their bills. They need some relief.”

He added that Ahoskie now has the highest water rates in the area, adding, “I guess someone has to be number one.”

Daniels also questioned the town, in its 2009-10 budget, transferring $782,500 from the Water and Sewer Enterprise Fund to the General Fund.

“Other towns do not do this,” he noted. “Our water and sewer fund doesn’t need to be used to pay the bills of other departments. It needs to stand on its own.”

Daniels said that $782,500 could be used to meet the annual payments on the town’s wastewater treatment plant expansion, a $17.8 million project already underway and scheduled for completion in 2011. Ahoskie is obligated to make annual payments of $800,000 for 40 years to pay for that project.

“That money could be used to make those payments without the added burden of these higher (water/sewer) rates,” Daniels stated.

To drive home his point that the rates are excessive, Daniels said the water/sewer bills for his son’s businesses were $5,000 higher per month since July. This comes despite those businesses using 100,000 gallons of water less per month.

“If the town of Ahoskie wants to close these businesses, then you are doing a good job,” Daniels concluded.

During his 15 minutes at the podium, Dixon challenged the council to “keep your eyes and ears open.”

“You need to question the size of this new (wastewater treatment plant expansion) project,” Dixon said. “You’ve let the (project) engineers dictate what was needed. They can come back and say I made a mistake, but we all know that mistakes cost money.”

He added, “Take the time out of your busy schedules and walk up and down the street and listen to the people of this town face to face. You need to know what’s going on. You need to know the impact these rates have had on the people.”

Dixon also researched the fee schedule attached to the water/sewer rates. He noted the recent tap-on fees at $4,874 and the tampering fees at $4,365.

“What really knocked me off my feet were the re-connection fees of $87,000,” he noted. “That should tell you the economic impact these new rates have on the citizens.”

During individual comments from the council members heard at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, newly seated Councilman Winfred Hardy expressed concern over the water/sewer rates.

“We need to look at those; we don’t want to put people out of business,” Hardy said. “The people need to have water to take their medicine.”

In mid-August, council approved a plan by Town Manager Tony Hammond to restructure the rates from the original increase that was put in place July 1.

For residential accounts, there is a new flat rate of $30 ($10 for water; $20 for sewer) for usage of 2,999 gallons or less. The July 1st rate for that same amount was $35.15.

For water/sewer usage of 3,000 gallons, there is an additional, per 1,000-gallon fee of $3.65 for water and $5.35 for sewer. That fee is assessed for every 1,000 gallons (beginning with zero). For example, a residential customer using 3,000 gallons will be billed, under the revised rate, a $30 flat fee plus $3.65 times three ($10.95) in addition to $5.65 times three ($16.95) for sewer. That would bring that total bill for water/sewer to $57.90 (a savings from $62.15 under the July 1st rates).

Council also did away with the tier system, meaning the added rates ($3.65 and $5.65) do not change. For customers using 4,000 gallons, their bills will be the $30 flat fee plus $3.65 times four and $5.65 times four. Ditto for 5,000 gallons and onward.

On the commercial side, council removed the 4 percent multiplier. It left the tiered (per 1,000 gallons) system, but capped it at 20,000 gallons.

Under the revised rates, commercial customers will pay a $30 flat fee plus $3.65 and $5.65 per 1,000 gallons for up to 5,000 gallons. That per 1,000-gallon fee increases by $1 (for both water and sewer) between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons and another $1 from 10,000 to 20,000 gallons. After 20,000, the per 1,000-gallon rate is fixed at $5.65 (water) and $7.35 (sewer).

There was no change to the monthly surcharge ($5.15 residential; $9.20 commercial) added to each bill.

In addition, council opted to slightly adjust the monthly garbage collection rates. The residential rate is now $17 (down from $20) and $25 for a commercial account (a decrease from $30).

When asked in August if these new rates will be enough to cover the town’s costs to operate its water/sewer system, Hammond said it would be a “wait-and-see thing.”

“It cost us $3.5 million annually to operate our system,” he noted. “The only money we can use to pay for the upkeep and upgrades to that system is water/sewer revenue and any fees associated with water/sewer.”

If Ahoskie’s new $17.8 million wastewater treatment plant was not mandated by the state, there would be no need to raise the rates.

“We don’t have an option here…the state has told us we have to build a new treatment plant and that’s what we’re doing,” Hammond said. “Once it opens, we have to add state-certified personnel to assist in its operation. That adds to our costs.”