Sewer rate hike on council agenda

PARKERSBURG – City Council on Tuesday will consider the first reading of an ordinance that would allow the Parkersburg Utility Board to increase sewer rates by nearly 30 percent over the next four years.

Utility board officials say the increase is needed to fund state and federally mandated improvements, maintain required coverage for the board’s debt and keep pace with rising costs. But some council members argue the increase is too much and the board should tighten its belt and accept a lower number.

The hike would increase the base customer charge from $14.35 to $15.64 and the volume charge per 1,000 gallons from $5.56 to $6.06, a jump of 9 percent, starting July 1. Subsequent annual increases of 6 percent would follow until the base charge reaches $18.63 and the volume charge $7.22 on July 1, 2017.

“Nobody wants an increase, but unfortunately we either do this or we pay the piper later, and the piper later is going to be expensive,” said Council President John Rockhold. “I’m hoping that council has the courage to do the right thing.”

Failure to comply with West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection orders, based on the Federal Clean Water Act, could result in fines of up to $28,000 a day. The utility board is required to eliminate wastewater overflows during wet weather events by October 2020 and to complete the next round of improvements on the wastewater treatment plant by the end of 2016. And if the PUB doesn’t maintain rates that will provide 120 percent coverage of its maximum annual debt service, the interest rates on future borrowing could increase.

Councilman John Kelly said he understands the city doesn’t have much choice when it comes to complying with the state and federal mandates, but based on utility board Manager Eric Bennett’s presentation to council’s Finance Committee earlier this month, about two-fifths of the proposed increase is needed to do that. Bennett said another two-fifths would address inflation since the last rate hike in 2008 and maintain debt coverage, while the rest would build additional funds for future projects to reduce the need for borrowing.

Kelly said he would support an increase of 4 percent each year, which would bring the total charge for the average customer using 4,000 gallons of water a month to $43.18 instead of the $47.51 under the PUB’s proposal. That would cover the mandated project costs and provide a cushion for the board while being more reasonable for people on fixed incomes, he said.

“I don’t want to see a 9 percent (increase) the first year. Let’s even it out a little bit,” Kelly said. “If we can’t modify it for that, and the numbers stay the same, I will vote against the entire package.”

Rockhold urged interested citizens to come to Tuesday’s meeting and ask questions. A second reading of the ordinance and a public hearing are planned for the Feb. 11 council meeting.

Also at the meeting, Mayor Bob Newell plans to deliver his annual message to council, outlining what was accomplished in 2013 and what the city needs to prepare for in 2014.

At 7 p.m., council will meet as the Urban Renewal Authority to consider a resolution transferring ownership of the Point Park Marketplace at 113 Ann St. to the Municipal Building Commission. That three-person body, whose members are appointed by council, would oversee the setting of rates, signing of leases and other activities, some of which council cannot do and some of which could prove cumbersome.

“Council doesn’t have to fool with those things, of having to approve every lease,” Newell said. “It keeps the city from being a landlord.”