Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oconee County Proposed Departmental Fees Include Big Increases in Water and Sewer Rates

On Page 8 of 10

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is set to approve a residential water rate increase of at least 25 percent for all but the most frugal of county water customers and a sewer rate increase of at least 16 percent when it gives final approval to the Fiscal Year 2011 budget on Tuesday night.

County Finance Director Jeff Benko made no mention of the water and sewer rate increases when he presented the proposed budget at the public hearing on May 25, and none of the five commissioners referenced it.

The rate increase was shown on page eight of a 10-page list of fees for county services that was put on the county web site on May 26.

While the base water rate will stay the same at $16.50, the amount of water that a customer gets for that amount will go down from 2,000 gallons per month to 1,000.

To get the extra 1,000 now included in the base rate, users will have to pay an additional $4.25, or 25.8 percent more than the amount paid this year for the same amount of water.

Utility Director Chris Thomas was on vacation last week, but representatives of his office told me that only about 500 of the roughly 7,500 residential customers in the system use 1,000 gallons of water or less each month.

Using 2,000 gallons per month or less is difficult. In my two-person home, we have used that little water only twice in the last seven pay periods. We take short showers, catch water that is warming from the bathroom faucets and shower to use to flush the toilet and limit flushing. And we watered outside only one of those pay periods.

Sewage rates also will increase, from $15.48 to $18.00 per month for 2,000 gallons of treatment for most residential customers, and from $12.48 to $18.00 for others. Those are increases of 16.3 percent and 44.2 percent respectively.

Finance Director Benko made only a brief reference to the Utility Department budget in his prepared comments and PowerPoint presentation on May 25. He said that the change in the Utility Department budget was “pretty negligible.” The spending will increase by $87,000, he said.

Neither the Athens Banner-Herald nor The Oconee Enterprise mentioned the rate increases in stories on the May 25 meeting. The Oconee Leader has not run a story on the meeting.

Oconee County Utility Department Director Chris Thomas proposed water and sewer rate increases to the Board of Commissioners when he met with it on April 14.

At that time, Thomas asked for a increase in the base water rate–for people using 2,000 gallons of water per month or less–of 15.2 percent. The rate would have gone from $16.50 to $19.00.

Residential water rates after the minimum also would have increased, with those using from 2,001 to 5,000 gallons per month paying $4.10 per 1,000 gallons, or an increase of 5.1 percent over the current rate of $3.90.

The highest rate would have been for those using 20,001 or more paying $7.16 per 1,000 gallon, or 5.0 percent more than the $6.82 per 1,000 gallon rate at present.

Thomas said at the time that the rate increases were needed in part because of the increased indebtedness associated with the county’s decision to join Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir project.

Commissioners Jim Luke and Chuck Horton asked Thomas to come back with a new proposal that would hold the line on the base rate, with Luke suggesting that the base might be reduced to 1,000 gallons per month.

The Banner-Herald did not have a reporter at the April 14 presentation by Thomas. The Enterprise did, but the story that appeared in the paper about the hearing on April 22 did not mention water and sewer rate increases.

In none of the subsequent public discussions of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget has there been any mention of the rates that were placed on the web site on May 26.

The water and sewer rates also will increase for commercial users, and the amount of water covered by the base water rate also will decrease from 2,000 gallons to 1,000.

For residential customers, the sliding scale for increases in water rates will be changed as part of the new rate structure.

In the past, rates went up after 5,000 gallons, 8,000 gallons, 12,000 gallons and 20,000 gallons.

In the future, rates will go up at 4,000, 8,000, 12,000 and 20,000.

Customers will pay the $4.25 per 1,000 gallons for from 1,000 gallons to 4,000 gallons. Water users will pay $5.05 per 1,000 gallons after 4,000 gallons, $5.75 after 8,000 gallons, $6.67 after 12,000 gallons, and $7.16 after 20,000 gallons.

Commercial rates increase at 2,000 gallons per month now and do not change after that point. With the new rates, they increase to $5.15 per 1,000 gallons at 1,000 gallons and do not increase after that level. The current commercial rate is $4.90 per 1,000 gallons after 2,000 gallons.

The county has about 1,200 commercial water customers in addition to the 7,500 residential customers.

Most of the county’s 1,200 sewer customers are commercial.

On July 1, 2009, the base water rate increased from $14.04 per month for 2,000 gallons of water to the current $16.50 per month, or an increase of 17.5 percent.

On April 1, 2008, the county also increased water rates, but then only for customers using more than the base water rate of 2,000 gallons per month.
The county sent a mailing to all water customers following that 2008 rate increase, saying the rate change was being made as a conservation measure.

The county did not notify customers directly about the rate increase last year.

Utility Director Thomas told me in an e-mail message on Aug. 26, 2009, that he had received “very few complaints/comments about the increased rates.”

“There were several articles in the local papers discussing the rate increases,” Thomas said. “Also, your blog and numerous public hearings. The average homeowner only saw a $2-$3 increase in their monthly bill.”

The $6.3 million figure Finance Director Benko used on May 25 for the Utility Department budget in the current fiscal year differs from the figure used by Thomas in his presentation to the commissioners in April.

Documents released to me following that hearing in response to an open records request show that Thomas was reporting an amended budget of $5.6 million for Fiscal Year 2010.

Thomas only had data on revenue from water and sewage fees through the end of January of this year, however, and Thomas told the Board at the April meeting that water sales were increasing. Budgets are amended as revenue and expense figures change.

In addition to the water and sewage rate changes, the 2011 budget the Board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday night includes increases in building inspection fees, rental fees for park facilities and fees for park programs.

As with the water and sewer rate increases, these will become effective with the new budget on July 1.

Benko’s PowerPoint presentation is available on the county web site, and the video of the meeting is available on the county’s Vimeo site.