08/10/08 — Mount Olive officials defend water rates

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Mount Olive officials defend water rates

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 10, 2008 1:53 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A flood of calls from water customers upset by higher water bills created by the town's new usage-based rates has inundated town offices. And while town officials have attempted to explain the rates, they can offer no hope of relief.

"We have gotten a lot of calls, but I have to say once you explain it to the public in a rational manner, they don't like it just like I am sure that they didn't like paying $4 a gallon for gas, but they understand the situation," Town Manager Charles Brown said.

Brown said it was of little comfort, but Mount Olive still has one of the cheapest water and sewer rate schedules in the state.

During Monday night's board meeting, Commissioner Kenny Talton suggested that a special commissioners' meeting might be needed to "see where we are with water rates and to see if we need to make adjustments or stay where we are."

Meanwhile, Division of Water Quality Control officials Tuesday told Brown that the town could pay now to fix its sewer system or pay the state later in fines for sewer spills.

"Their concern is that we've got a nice new $13.5 million wastewater treatment plant and that the collection system -- the system that takes it from your house to the treatment plant -- is old and in a lot of cases in disrepair," Brown said.

"Even with our new water/sewer rates, they want to know whether we are going to have the resources to maintain that system in proper order," he said.

Brown said the state does not want sewer spills that put untreated sewage in the environment -- a problem the town has experienced numerous times in the past.

In fact, the town Wednesday paid a $4,470 fine for an April spill.

In the past the town has been "able to beg off" of some of the fines, but not this one, Brown said.

Part of the reason for Tuesday's meeting at the Division of Water Quality Control in Washington, N.C., was to demonstrate what the town is trying to accomplish.

"What they wanted to emphasize to us on Tuesday was that the way our budget is set up now, we have funds to maintain the sewer collection system, something the town has lacked in the past," Brown said.

"They said that any indication from us that we wanted to back up on rates and amount of money we have budgeted for water/sewer system work would be frowned upon and they would view that as lack of good of faith in terms of trying to fix the collection system," he said.

Brown said the officials were not being "ugly."

"This is just the way it is," Brown said.

State officials wanted town officials to understand the importance of maintaining funding to ensure the system is maintained in proper working order, he said.

"They understand the town has an old system," he said. "They understand we can't fix it in one or even two years. That basically, they said they view we have a budgeted line item for maintenance as a show of good faith on the part of town. If we maintain the funds to work on that system and have a plan in place, which we do, if we stick with it, they will take that into consideration if we have a spill and we very likely will. They'll take that into consideration when they look at assessing fines."

Absent that effort on the part of town, the state would be "very unforgiving" in fines for spills that might occur,
he said.

The problem, Brown said, is that sewer work is "very expensive." The town has been required to make several emergency repairs alone since April.

"Things that break or collapse, you don't have any choice but to fix them," he said. "You cannot leave raw sewage running in the streets."

The town is preparing to begin work on Church Street where a sewer line has collapsed. When completed, the town will have spent $99,000 out of a budget of $110,000 since April just for repairs .

"What I would like to make clear is that the board of commissioners is going to take a lot of heat for this," Brown said. "They are the ones who had to vote to adopt the new rate structure.

"But the board didn't really have a choice. Funding agencies look at debt service for the new treatment plant, they look at operating expenses, they plug in the number of users and what the computer spits out spells out pretty clearly how much each customer must pay per month to ensure funds are available for legal debts and reserves."

Brown noted that a speaker at the board's Monday night session had questioned why water bills had gone up so much despite the grants the town had received for the sewer treatment plant.

The town did receive a $7 million grant. But another $6 million came from a 2003 bond issue overwhelmingly approved by voters.

"That is borrowed money the town has to repay," Brown said. "We have no choice but to pay bond holders."

Brown said the state has the option to close and then assume control and operation of a failed sewer system.

It was unfortunate the rate had gone into effect in July, the biggest usage month in the year, and at a time when gas was $4 per gallon,
Brown said.

"We have had such cheap water for so long it was a shock to people's systems," he said.