Thursday, April 16, 2009

Oconee Water and Sewer Rate Increases Proposed

Paying More to Drink and Flush

Oconee County residential water users will be asked for the second time in a little more than a year to pay more for water if the Board of Commissioners approves a budget request made Wednesday night by Utility Department Director Chris Thomas.

Thomas presented a budget that calls for an increase of 31.8 percent in the base water rate, or the minimum amount paid by water customers. That rate will increase from its current $14.04 per month to $18.50, if the proposal is approved by the Board.

The rate increases are needed to compensate for a decrease in water sales and consequent decrease in revenues for the Utility Department, Thomas said.

For $18.50 customers would receive 2,000 gallons of water per month. Under both the current and the proposed scheme, water rates increase with use. Thomas proposed that at each step in the rate scheme water would cost 10 cents more per 1,000 gallons used.

For example, the rate for each additional 1,000 gallons of water used up to 5,000 gallons would increase from $3.80 per 1,000 gallons to $3.90 per $1,000 gallons. At the highest level of use–more than 20,000 gallons per month–the rate per 1,000 gallons would go from $6.72 to $6.82.

The Board of Commissioners increased water rates in the county on April 1, 2008, but only for those who used large amounts of water. For those using more than 12,000 gallons of water per month, the rate of increase was 30 percent or more.

Thomas said at the special meeting of the Board on Wednesday to review budgets requests for the 2010 fiscal year that the county has not increased the basic water rate since 1998.

The 2008 rate increase did not change the base rate and was presented as an attempt at conservation pricing. Thomas acknowledged at the Wednesday night meeting that he could not determine if the conservation pricing had decreased use, given restrictions on water use imposed by the state.

The 2008 increase did not affect commercial users, but the rate increase Thomas proposed on Wednesday night would increase the commercial base rate from $14.04 to $18.50, and the rate per 1,000 gallons of additional water used from $4.80 to $4.90.

Commercial users at present and with the new plan would pay the same per 1,000 gallons used above the base regardless of how much was used.

Sewer rates also would increase, if the Board accepts the proposal put forward by Thomas. The residential base would go from $12.48 to $15.48, or an increase of 24.0 percent. The commercial base rate would go from $21.51 to $25.51, or an increase of 18.6 percent. In both cases, the base rate would provide for 2,000 gallons of treatment.

Residential rates for sewage above the base rate would increase from $2.39 to $3.22 for each 1,000 gallons treated, while the commercial rate for each 1,000 gallons treated would go from $2.84 to $3.52.

The Utility Department had revenues of $3.3 million for the first eight months of the current fiscal year. That means the department has only four months to make up the $3.2 million needed to reach the projected budget of $6.5 million.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the Utility Department fell $1.2 million short of its projected budget of $7.1 million.

Thomas said he hopes the county implements more frequent rate increases in the future so customers are not confronted in the future with the kinds of dramatic increases in the base rate he is proposing this year.

Thomas said even with the increases he is proposing, Oconee County citizens would have a lower base rate for water than residents of Barrow County and Winder, though it would be higher than in Walton and Jackson counties.

At the April 7 BOC meeting, when Thomas first said that he expected to be proposing rate increases for water and sewage services, he also indicated that the Utility Department was slowing work on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir in Walton County.

To same money and because of decreased need, the county plans to move forward with land acquisition but delay other parts of the project, Thomas said. Oconee is a junior partner with Walton County on the project.

At the end of 2008, the Utility Department was serving 8,497 water customers and 1,298 sewer customers, according to figures Thomas released on April 7. The number of water customers was 380 higher than a year earlier, while the number of sewer customers was 87 higher.

The BOC will hold a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2010 budget from 6:30 to 7 p.m. at the courthouse on May 26.