08/05/08 — Mount Olive residents seeing high water bills

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Mount Olive residents seeing high water bills

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 5, 2008 1:45 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Determining whether the town has any "wiggle room" in its water rate structure will be among the topics that Town Manager Charles Brown is expected to broach today while in Washington today to talk with officials with the state Division of Water Quality.

The new rates that went into effect last month have already generated calls to town hall -- rates based on usage that town officials placed on the doorsteps of state and federal agencies.

During the board's Monday night session, Mount Olive resident Darrell Jones wanted to know why the rates seem so much higher.

"What is going on with this. The sewer is double the water bill," he said. "I thought we got grants for the water treatment plant, and if so, can we see them? If we didn't, then the public needs to know because I never heard of anything we are having to pay for."

His comments drew a chorus of "amen" from the audience. Commissioner Kenny Talton said he also has received complaints. He suggested holding a special board meeting this month "to see where we are with water rates and take another look at it to see if we need to make adjustments or stay where we are. I am not asking for changes, but I think we need to look at it closely. I think it is our duty to respond to townspeople."

Mayor Ray McDonald Sr. told the audience that the town had the third-cheapest water rates in the state.

"One thing the public has to understand is that the sewer is kind of out our hands. The town passed a sewer bond referendum by a 9-1 margin to build the sewer plant. Those rates were set by the agencies that granted us the money. They have to be assured we have a debt service so that we can pay that back."

McDonald said one concern the town has is that a $300,000 well built just three years has already just about reached maximum capacity.

"If we keep increasing usage like we are doing, we are going to have to put in another $300,000 well or they (the state) will make us do that," he said. "We are trying to strike balance to make this thing work."

In addition, he said, the state legislature has given the governor "all kinds of power" in drought situations.

"If he calls us and tells us to divert water to Timbuktu, we have got to do it. There is going to be lot going on about water, and we all need to keep up with it. A man told us about 11 years ago that one day water will cost more than a power bill."

McDonald said the rates were not just accepted by the town board, but by the state and federal agencies involved in the town's water and sewer projects as well.

"We have got to pay the debt, we have got no choice," he said. "We need for Charles to bring it to attention of the agencies that people came and expressed concerns and see what the minimum is that they will let us charge."

Brown agreed.

"We don't have free rein," he said. "We are under constraints of the state."

Brown said he had received comments both ways -- from people whose bills went up and others whose went down.

"A couple of people whose bills went down called and for some odd reason they seemed equally concerned," he said. "What the public needs to understand is that we do not have free complete rein to set our own rates. We have got debt service on the sewer plant and operating expenses. State agencies who have money in the project want to ensure that our rates are such that the debt service and operating expenses are

Brown said Rural Water Association and the School of Government arrived at the town's rate structure in June after lengthy study. He said the town actually cut in half the per-gallon rate the Rural Water Association had recommended -- from $5 to $2.60 per gallon.

The state average is $5.20 per 1,000 gallons, he said.

Brown said it is too early to say what the public response would be.

"We knew there would be conversation about it and concerns about it and we certainly share those concerns. We want to be as fair to everybody as we can. However, is not a matter of the board setting arbitrary rates to make as much it as can. We have a system to maintain," he said.

Brown said that when the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. was approached about the pending rate change, company officials said they had talked with town officials in the 1990s about the rates.

They had been concerned the town was not charging enough to keep the system operational, Brown said.

As a large water customer, company officials were concerned about the potential for lost productivity should the town system fail.

Brown said it was unfortunate the bills with the new rate had to go out in July because consumption is normally up 5-10 percent high during that month.