Following the money trail

Published 9:33 am Thursday, February 11, 2010

AHOSKIE – The transfer of millions of dollars from the Town of Ahoskie’s water and sewer enterprise fund into the town’s general fund fell under fire here Tuesday.

This latest round of questioning raised by two Ahoskie businessmen was part of a months-long debate on the heels of the town raising water and sewer rates in July of last year. Even though members of the Ahoskie Town Council agreed to slightly lower those rates in August, Stan Dixon of Dixon Cleaners on Main Street and Hal Daniels, whose son, Henry, owns five businesses in town (two car washes and three laundromats), continue to address the issue.

Dixon and Daniels each addressed the Council at Tuesday’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Both men questioned why a combined $2,034,294 has been transferred over the past three budget years from the enterprise fund to the general fund.

According to figures Daniels said he received from Ahoskie Town Manager Tony Hammond, nearly $900,000 of the money transferred between the two funds was used to pay salaries.

“But whose salaries,” Daniels inquired. “I’ve asked that question, but nobody seems to have an answer.”

In a later interview, Daniels said he was told there was nothing in the way the town kept its financial books that was able to further break down how the money was spent other than for salaries or for a transfer to the general fund.

“Ahoskie has increased its water and sewer rates over the last three years, with the largest increase coming this year,” Daniels said in a Wednesday interview. “At the same time, the town is transferring huge amounts of money from the enterprise fund to the general fund. That only leads me to believe that the user fees Ahoskie residents and business owners pay for water and sewer are not fully supporting the town’s public works infrastructure needs as they are intended. Rather, it appears they are being partly used to balance the town’s general fund expenditures.”

Daniels said he is worried that if the town’s future budget needs a boost, there will be another water and sewer fee hike.

On Tuesday, Daniels again asked council members to create a third class of water/rates for businesses that are 100 percent water dependent. He asked for those fees to be frozen at the rates prior to the July, 2009 increase and a refund given to those who qualify for that “water dependent” classification for overpayments made since July.

“Our business is down and our expenses are up, the latter mostly due to the water and sewer rate increase,” Daniels noted. “My son paid $43,000 last year for water and sewer fees. He did so on a business that charges quarters and dollars (for their services).”

Daniels continued, “These businesses cannot continue to pay these bills. You will run them out of business. You need to allow these businesses to operate on a level playing field.”

At the end of his presentation, Daniels asked Ccouncil members if they had any questions. Upon hearing none, he said, “It’s obvious to me that you don’t understand or just don’t care.”

To that, Ahoskie Mayor Linda Blackburn replied, “We do understand and we do care. We are working to look at these rates.”

Later in the meeting during her scheduled Mayor’s comments, Blackburn said she was offended Daniels’ remarks.

“I encourage more citizens to come and talk to us about their concerns over the water and sewer rates,” she said. “Come and work with us. We are knowledgeable and we do care.”

During his remarks to Council, Dixon said he understood water was a valuable commodity and that the upkeep on the town’s public works infrastructure is a tremendous financial burden.

“But is it better today than 10 years ago,” Dixon asked. “We pay an infrastructure fee monthly that adds up to $200,000 a year. Why isn’t that used to pay for system upgrades?”

Dixon claimed that if the infrastructure needs were addressed in the past as he felt they should have, there would have been no need to build a new $17 million wastewater treatment plant (one currently under construction).

“We have a big problem with (water/sewer) infrastructure here in Ahoskie,” Dixon alleged. “There’s a lot of infiltration (into the lines) and that has proven as a problem for our (existing) wastewater plant.”

Dixon claimed that by solving the infiltration problems, there would be enough capacity at the existing wastewater plant to handle Ahoskie’s needs.

“We don’t mind paying our way, but when we pay more than the norm, we have a problem,” Dixon concluded. “It’s gotten to the point when I turn on my water or flush my commode that I wonder how I will pay for it.”

In August of last year when the council revised the water/sewer rates, they promised to follow-up on that issue in six months. February marked the end of that period and council members, at Tuesday’s meeting, debated several dates to conduct a workshop to address the rates. Due to several scheduling conflicts among the board members present, it was finally agreed to hold the workshop at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 2.