• 54°

City continues freeze on water, sewer rates

The city will continue the freeze on its water and sewer rates.

Suffolk City Council voted 5-0 to defer the rate increases through June 30, noting that “the ability to defer the rate increases for another 90 days is due to additional debt service savings realized through the refunding of existing utility fund debt.”

Three members of council — Mayor Mike Duman, Nansemond Borough Councilman Lue Ward and new Chuckatuck Borough Councillwoman Shelley Butler Barlow — were not at the meeting.

When council approved the current $651 million budget last May, it deferred several previously planned increases — a 26-cent increase in the water rate from $9.71 to $9.97 per 748 gallons; a 27-cent increase to the sewer rate from $7.27 to $7.54 per 748 gallons and the $1.50 per month increase in the meter service charge. That deferral cost the city $450,000, city Finance Director Tealen Hansen said at the time.

At that time, non-departmental expenses were also reduced by the same amount to account for the money shortfall because of the delay, she said, that being done by lowering the amount of the bond interest expenses previously budgeted and using capitalized interest to fund it. When the budget passed, the utility fund was just over $61 million.

In December, council approved another rate freeze through April 1, with Interim City Manager Al Moor noting that with the help of the city’s financial advisors and the Virginia Resource Authority, the city was able to refinance the 2015 VRA bonds that the utility funds had, providing a roughly $433,000 savings in the current fiscal year.

Last summer, Suffolk Public Utilities also announced a program to provide help with water, sewer and wastewater charges for qualifying city residents who have experienced financial hardships due to employment impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Councilmembers praised the continued freeze on rates.

“I never would have thought for a minute that from the time this started with COVID … that we managed to hold that rate down because we’ve had some shifting in funding that we were able to do and it’s helped,” Fawcett said. “It’s not a guarantee that it will be there forever, (but) it’s going to get us through the end of June, probably, and then we’ll see where we’re going.”

Bennett offered his thanks to city staff for finding a way to keep the rates from increasing for the time being.

“(Deferring) water rates is something that I know everyone is pleased about,” Bennett said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time. And every month we can continue to not increase it, that is helping the people.”