Council passes sewer rate compromise

PARKERSBURG – City Council narrowly approved the first reading of a lower sewer rate hike proposed by the Parkersburg Utility Board Tuesday.

Council voted 5-4 to move forward with a plan that would increase the amount the average customer pays on 4,000 gallons of water a month from the current total of $36.59 to $44.44 by July 1, 2017, a 21.5 percent climb.

The measure will be up for a public hearing and second and final reading at council’s Feb. 25 meeting.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” Councilwoman Kim Coram said after Tuesday’s meeting in council chambers. “It’s not going to get any cheaper to upgrade” the wastewater treatment plant, one of the reasons for the requested increase.

Council members Nancy Wilcox, Sharon Lynch, Roger Brown and J.R. Carpenter voted against the ordinance. Lynch said the reduction wasn’t low enough to gain her support.

“I received several phone calls from people in the city telling me they’re going to have a hard time making payments,” she said.

The utility board, an autonomous entity separate from the city but reliant on council to approve its rates, originally pitched a structure that would take the average cost to $47.51 a month, a total increase of 29.8 percent. The customer and volume charges would have risen 9 percent as of July 1, then 6 percent the next three years.

The board says the increase is needed to meet federal stormwater regulation mandates, maintain required debt service, make up for inflation since the last increase in 2008 and build funds to minimize borrowing for future projects.

Speaking to council Tuesday, utility board manager Eric Bennett said the compromise would increase rates by 6 percent in the first year, 5 percent in the second and third years and 4 percent in the fourth year. That would meet the requirements the board has to “with minimal breathing room,” he said.

“Continued delay of any rate increase puts us in danger of not meeting the deadline” for the required upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, Bennett said.

If the next phase is not completed by the end of 2016, the PUB could face fines of $28,000 a day. All upgrades must be done by October 2020.

Councilman John Kelly vocally opposed the original plan, saying last week he would support an increase of 4 percent a year. That would have taken the average monthly bill to $43.18, an increase of 18 percent.

At the meeting, Kelly said he’d met with utility board members to discuss alternatives to the original proposal and he could support the compromise.

“It really was a tight negotiation,” Kelly said.

Utility board Vice Chairman John Lutz said he appreciated council’s support, but was surprised at the narrow margin of the vote after the compromise was proposed.

“I still think that the original proposal is the best for Parkersburg in the long run,” he said. “But the compromise will work for now.”

Lynch and Wilcox said they would have supported an increase of 3 percent a year.

Carpenter told council members he’d heard from charities who were already providing a great deal of assistance to residents to cover their utility bills, and the proposed increase would only make matters worse.

“There will be more water shut-offs” if it passes, he said.

Lynch questioned how much of the new increase would go to employee raises. Bennett said it was too early to say, since the board’s budget for the upcoming year won’t be finalized until May.

“When we go through that process, we’ll cut what is necessary,” he said.

Bennett said the board and staff will look at every avenue, “like we always do,” to determine how to live within their means. That includes salaries, which some council members have been critical of since they’re based on the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and sometimes exceed those granted to city employees.