Parkersburg City Council approves sewer hike

PARKERSBURG – After a last-ditch attempt to lower a proposed sewer rate hike, Parkersburg City Council voted 5-4 to approve the final reading of a compromise rate for the Parkersburg Utility Board Tuesday.

The arrangement will hike the customer and volume charge per 1,000 gallons used by 6 percent starting July 1, the first step of an incremental increase that would raise rates by 5, 5 and 4 percent the following years. The average charge for a customer using 4,000 gallons a month would rise from $36.59 now to $44.44 by 2017.

Representatives of the utility board, an autonomous entity that relies on council to approve rates, have said the increase is needed to cover federally and state-mandated wet-weather overflow upgrades, maintain required debt service, make up for inflation since the last increase in 2008 and build funds to minimize borrowing for future projects.

Councilman J.R. Carpenter made a motion to cut the increases to 3 percent a year through 2017, saying that would cover the treatment plant upgrade the city must complete to avoid being fined by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

“And if that’s not enough, for the utility board to come back in the second or third year and tell us why,” he added.

Utility Board Manager Eric Bennett said the upgrades have to be completed by the end of 2016, so the money would not all be in place in time.

“In other words, the project won’t happen,” he said. “They won’t give us the bonds; they won’t give us the loan.”

Councilman Roger Brown asked Bennett if the board could work with a one-time 10 percent increase, using existing revenue for everything other than the plant upgrade. But Bennett pointed out there are other financial concerns for the board.

“Besides the project, we still have the issue of growing costs and the debt service ratio that we still have to cover,” Bennett said.

After the first reading of the ordinance was approved in January, Carpenter said he’d spoken with local charities who said people were already struggling with current water and sewer rates and this increase would add to that hardship. No one addressed that issue Tuesday.

Mayor Bob Newell, the non-voting chairman of the utility board, pointed out that the citizens of Parkersburg voted once to put the city’s water and sewer utilities under the autonomous utility board and again to keep it that way. He pointed to the lack of speakers at the public hearing prior to Tuesday’s vote as evidence that residents understand the need for the increase.

“It’s so controversial that nobody showed up at the public hearing, and that ought to tell you something,” the mayor said. “The citizens of Parkersburg trust the utility board.”

One woman later stood and asked to speak, but Council President John Rockhold noted the public hearing was closed. After the meeting, the woman declined to give her name or discuss what she had wanted to talk about.

Councilman John Kelly, who opposed the board’s initial request for a total 29.8 percent increase over four years, spoke in favor of the compromise, which amounts to 21.5 percent.

“We have brought their request down considerably, and I think we do have a workable agreement,” he said.

Carpenter’s motion failed 6-3, with only him, Brown and Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox supporting it.

Council then voted on the final reading of the ordinance, with Councilwoman Sharon Lynch joining Brown, Carpenter and Wilcox in opposition.

Lynch said she didn’t support Carpenter’s motion because funds still would have gone to operations for the PUB.

In other business, council approved the first reading of an ordinance amending the city’s policy and procedure manual to reclassify the information technology coordinator’s job and set the annual base salary at $41,000. Some aspects of the job are being changed to reflect newer technology after computer system administrator Bob Gibbs’ upcoming retirement.