NEW CUMBERLAND -Citing an aging and indebted system, New Cumberland City Council on Monday raised water and sewer rates for the first time in four years.
City officials say the rate hikes are needed to keep the New Cumberland Water and Sewage departments solvent and to make costly repairs and upgrades to a system that is 80 years old.
"It's like an emergency raise," Mayor Linda McNeil said.
The rate increases, which are effective Sept. 5, will raise an estimated $65,000 in additional revenue for the water department each year and an estimated $25,000 in additional revenue for the sewage department, city officials said.
Under the new rate plan, the minimum charge for water customers will increase by 75 percent-from $6.62 a month to $11.62 a month. The minimum charge for sewer customers will increase by 16 percent-from $20.12 a month to $23.43 a month. The minimum charge for water and sewer customers covers the first 2,000 gallons used per month.
Ward 1 Councilman Will White said the city has a five-year plan to make improvements to its water and sewer systems, including the replacement of at least one water tank and the transition to a radio-based meter reader system. Either of those projects would have to be financed by a bond or loan, with payments coming from the additional revenue generated by the rate increases, White said.
White, who worked with former Mayor Richard Blackwell and the water-sewerage board to draft the necessary legislation, said the current rates are not sufficient to cover expenses and that the departments will soon operate under a deficit without the rate increases.
In addition to improvement projects, New Cumberland needs the additional revenue to help it service nearly $2 million in debt, McNeil said. In 2009, the Water-Sewerage Board obtained a loan of $764,000, at 5 percent interest for 20 years. The city sewer indebtedness is $826,351, the sum total of three bonds, White said.
Both loans require monthly payments exceeding $5,000 and $6,000.
But New Cumberland resident John Paul Jones-the only resident to attend a public hearing held prior to Monday's special session of City Council-wondered if the rate increases were necessary.
"If you're going to 'up' the rates, at least say you tried to take some cost-cutting measures," he said.
White said the departments have already cut overtime, but that there aren't many other places to cut. "When you're not solvent, every day involves cost monitoring," he said.
Jones said he probably will file a written objection to the rate increase with the Public Service Commission (PSC) of West Virginia, the state agency that regulates local water and sewer boards. The PSC also must approve the rate increases before they become effective.
Following the public hearing, City Council had a second reading on the legislation, passing the sewer rate hike by a vote of 5-1 and passing the water rate hike by a vote of 4-2.
Ward 2 Councilman Shawn Marks voted against both rate increases. "We needed a raise, but this is not an equal raise for everybody," he said. "There wasn't enough work done to make it fair for everyone."
Marks was referring to the fact that, on June 14, council agreed to increase the bulk sewage rate but at a much lower rate-11 cents a month-than the residential rate. New Cumberland charges its bulk rate to residents of New Cumberland Heights, who are customers of the Hancock County Public Service District but whose sewage is treated by New Cumberland through a gravity-fed system.
What's more, the city's new water rate schedule treats residential customers different from the city's one resale customer-Tomlinson Water District-which buys an estimated 4.5 million gallons a month from New Cumberland. The rate increase raises Tomlinson's bill from $2.65 a month per 1,000 gallons used to $3.05.
White said the city's rate structure, which is still one of the lowest in West Virginia, will be re-evaluated every 10 months and that more rate increases may be on the way.