By Michael Campbell, News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – “We don’t want to end up like Petersburg or Flint, Michigan. It’s something we have to do.”
Those were the words of Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Robertson as he spoke to residents following the board’s unanimous decision to approve an increase in both water and sewer rates for its customers Tuesday night as some of those very customers walked out of the boardroom visibly frustrated by the county’s vote.
As part of the process of adopting the county’s budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, Prince George advertised its tax rates, which will remain at current levels, and its utility rates, which will see a ten percent increase in water rates and a 20 percent increase in wastewater fees.
In the budget message provided by Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, the increases were needed to “realign utility revenues to cover annual operating and capital expenses” and is expected to generate over $731,000 in much-needed revenue for the public utilities department, which is a self-supporting department that receives no general fund tax revenues to cover its costs.
According to the budget message and later conveyed by Director of Engineering and Utilities Chip England, the proposed rate increase equals to a $2.24 per month hike in water and an $8.74 increase in sewer charges for the residential customer who uses an average of 5,000 gallons per month, the first such increase in three years, officials confirmed.
Both Ashcraft and England stressed that “about two-thirds of residential customers would actually see less than this $11 per month increase because they consume less than the average 5,000 gallons per month.”
That statement did little to ease the concerns of some residents of the Tinsley Charter subdivision, who asked supervisors to consider the population that lives in that area before taking action to increase rates during Tuesday’s public hearing.
“I get the reasons for the increase and that we need to maintain facilities, but I have to implore you to remember that those families are single families with not a lot of room for increases on them,” remarked Joe Baloney, who lives in Tinsley Charter and serves as the subdivision’s homeowners’ association president.
Following the hearing, Robertson explained that the utility service is only paid for by those who use it, adding that Prince George as a county and utility provider is lucky to be able to deal with both the Appomattox River Water Authority and South Central Wastewater Authority to get water from and have sewage treated by because they are both not interested in seeking to make profits for shareholders.
The chairman also pointed to data provided by England that showed the county’s rate and how it compared to Virginia American Water and Sewer, noting that Virginia American Water and Sewer has seen increases of approximately 5.7 percent annually, as opposed to Prince George’s 0.4 percent annual increase.
According to England, Virginia American Water and Sewer’s rate is “about 50 percent” higher than the county’s and, with the increase, VA Water and Sewer would be “about 40 percent” higher.
“They have to make a profit for their stockholders,” Robertson remarked. “The two organizations we deal with on each side of us are not.”
He continued by saying, while he hates increases in rates and taxes, doing this can prevent a situation similar to what has happened in Petersburg from happening in Prince George.
“Petersburg’s system is near the point of collapse,” the chairman said. “The city manager said that the city will need to invest $90 million just to keep the system from collapsing. We could keep our rates low, but we could end up in that situation. But, someone has to pay for it and we can’t allow this system to go into disrepair.”
Earlier this month, the city of Petersburg approved a water rate increase of 13.4 percent and comes on the heels of discussions by city leaders to possibly privatize their water system, with Robert Bobb, head of the turnaround agency helping tackle Petersburg’s debt crisis saying to WWBT-TV in Richmond, “Our water system is over 100 years old, multiple leaks in the system,” telling the television station that city has “no type of capital budget whatsoever to make any kind of repairs.”
In addition, Petersburg’s financial woes could affect Prince George in terms of purchasing water from city going forward, with supervisor TJ Webb explaining that the county is hard-pressed to be able to control what they are charged for water and sewer because the county doesn’t have its own facilities, adding that an attorney was brought in to fight to keep the rates down.
During the nearly 30-minute discussion, Robertson’s points were echoed by fellow supervisor Alan Carmichael, who said the county worked tirelessly to make the $132 per year increase hurt less for its customers, going on to say that this rate increase is partly due to lack of action on past increase opportunities.
“It seemed like the department was in good financial shape and every time a rate increase approached, we thought we could delay it,” Carmichael said. “Now, we’re paying for it 15 years later. It’s time to pay the bill that, unfortunately, or fortunately, we were able to slide by for years.”
It is possible more rate hikes could occur in the future as supervisors and utility staff say the department will still be short $200,000 annually, even after the approved rate increases.
“As much as it seems like a high rate, they are still going to have to dip into their account for $200,000 per year,” Carmichael continued. “I am not sure how many years it will be before we have to sit here and deal with this again and for them to do their capital projects.”
According to the budget message and public utility officials, a number of projects have been budgeted for in the upcoming fiscal year, including renewal of existing utility infrastructure, such as the Food Lion water system, meter replacements, and sewer pump station improvement, which England stated that construction and rehabilitation at the sewer pump on South Crater Road could cost around $700,000.
Through the approved increase, other fees, such as water and sewer reconnection charges and temporary hydrant fees will rise by $5 and the temporary hydrant rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $12.87 to $14.16.
The new rates will take effect July 1 for Cycle 2 customers and August 1 for Cycle 1 customers.
Copyright 2017 by Womack Publishing