Water rate discussed

Published 10:25 pm Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The city’s water rates were the topic of conversation during a City Council work session on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like they’re going down anytime soon.

In fact, said David Rose of Davenport and Co., the city’s financial adviser, the rate will probably continue to go up for the foreseeable future. But Rose did come with some good news: Water costs will probably go up less than they could have.

Rose was at the meeting to talk about the plan to take on new debt — about $86 million worth of projects are needed during the next five years. He also suggested refinancing some existing debt to see about $2 million in savings.

Email newsletter signup

“While (interest) rates are at or near historic lows, we’d like to talk about a structured refinancing,” Rose said.

The plan could mean the rate for water and sewer combined will rise about 3 percent in 2018, a number that once was contemplated to be as high as 10 percent.

Additional increases would be forthcoming in future years, but none as high as once thought.

Rose said the typical user’s monthly bill would be about $91 in fiscal year 2018, compared to the $96 an estimate prepared a year ago suggested. In 2021, the typical customer’s bill would be $116 based on current projections — Rose projected $132 a year ago.

“We’d like to be lower than that, but because of all the factors in keeping this system solid, we don’t have as much rate shock in 2021,” Rose said.

The needs of the city’s public utility system are complex, Rose and city Public Utilities Director Al Moor said.

The system has about 24,800 water customers and 21,000 sewer customers. Operating revenues last year reached $41 million.

But the system has taken on major debt to meet the demands of a growing city and fulfill federal and state requirements, without which it would have owed huge penalties.

The slowdown in residential construction caused by the recession, and a reduction in water consumption due to customer conservation and more efficient appliances, have added to the burden.

However, Moor said he saw a slight increase in consumption last year, indicating the factors that were decreasing water usage may have leveled out.

The Western Tidewater Regional Jail — one of the system’s top 10 users, Moor said — recently completed a project that reduced its water bill by half.

“That’s going to have a slight impact of about $300,000 a year to the utility fund,” Moor said. But he hoped it would be overcome by a growth in consumption throughout the rest of the system.

The future looks promising for spreading the burden among more users. About 6,000 residential units are approved but not yet constructed. Every one that gets built is a new water customer.

Rose said he used a conservative figure of only 400 new “equivalent residential units” per year in coming up with his estimates. A business might be eight “equivalent residential units.”

Councilman Tim Johnson said he is deeply concerned about the water rates.

“We’re responsible for that, all the people sitting up here and all the people that sat up here before,” he said. “There needs to be a plan of action … to somehow confront that and reduce that any way we can. If you’re out there trying to pay a $120 water bill every month and you only make $30,000 a year, it’s very difficult. It worries me to no (end) that we are not able to get a handle on this.”

Rose said his goal is to help reduce the water rates or keep them as low as possible.

“The good news is we have tried to stem some of that bleeding,” he said. “A great deal has been done.”

A public hearing on the new utility debt is set for the Sept. 21 council meeting.