Final reading of sewer rate hike Tuesday

PARKERSBURG – City Council on Tuesday will hold a public hearing and consider the final reading of an ordinance approving a 21.5 percent sewer rate increase over four years.

The rate adjustment on the agenda for Tuesday’s regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. in council chambers at the Municipal Building represents a compromise between council and the Parkersburg Utility Board, which despite being an autonomous entity relies on council to approve its rates.

The board originally proposed a 29.8 percent increase that would have incrementally taken the monthly charge for an average customer using 4,000 gallons of water from $36.59 to $47.51 by July 1, 2017. The increase was needed, utility board manager Eric Bennett said, to provide funding for federally and state-mandated wet weather overflow projects, maintain debt service at a required ratio and keep up with increasing costs.

Multiple council members balked at the proposal, among them Councilman John Kelly, who said he would draw the line at 4 percent a year for an overall increase of 18 percent.

The board won Kelly’s support with the compromise rate, which will make the charge for 4,000 gallons $44.44 a month by 2017, and the first reading passed 5-4 on Jan. 28.

Councilwoman Sharon Lynch was among those opposed to the new rate. She said she expects to vote “no” again on Tuesday.

“I don’t think I can vote for it until operations for that department (are) taken out of it,” she said.

Lynch acknowledged that the PUB has made an effort to cut costs.

“If you have X amount of dollars, you have to live within that X amount of dollars,” she said. “I think they’re going to have to do a little more.”

Bennett said further cuts will reduce the services available to customers.

“We continue to keep our budget as low as we can,” he said.

And without an increase in the funds dedicated to debt service, the board is in danger of falling below the required 120 percent coverage of its maximum annual debt service, Bennett said. That would hurt the board’s bond rating, increasing interest rates on future borrowing.

“Now that we’ve started paying off the loan on the work that just got completed, that debt ratio is decreasing,” Bennett said.

One reason some council members oppose the increase is the impact on people with fixed incomes.

Deborah Shaffer, Parkersburg regional director for Catholic Charities West Virginia, said recently the agency has been receiving calls from utility board customers who have received water shutoff notices.

“Some of these folks, especially the elderly who are living on fixed incomes, don’t know what they are going to do,” Shaffer said. “Part of our mission is to advocate on our clients’ behalf. We plan to go to a city council meeting and make the council members aware of how much difficulty the increased water rates are causing.”

Mayor Bob Newell, chairman of the utility board, said the city and the board are “certainly sympathetic to the issue,” but even if council reduced the proposed rate, it would need to be raised again sooner than later to meet the board’s obligations.

Also on Tuesday’s agenda is the first reading of an ordinance re-classifying the information technology coordinator position with an annual base salary of $41,000. Computer system administrator Bob Gibbs is retiring, and the city is changing some aspects of the job to reflect newer technology.

Council’s personnel committee passed the ordinance on to the full body during a Feb. 19 meeting, giving Newell the option of proposing a base salary between $36,000 and $41,000. The mayor said he chose the upper limit because the city would be competing for an employee with entities like the Bureau of Public Debt and Highmark West Virginia.

(Staff writer Pamela Brust contributed to this story.)