Archive for the ‘water rates’ Category

The sudden storms may have arrived on our forecasts. But steady rain has not. Thus serious drought conditions are creeping back through North Carolina, as shown by the monitoring map of the NC Drought Management Advisory Council.

Almost on cue, new legislation outlining water conservation cleared a major hurdle by being approved in committee Tuesday, the News & Observer reported. This summer we could very well see the approval of, or at least debate on, new restrictions designed to combat future droughts. As it stands, the bill would give the state more power in forcing municipalities to implement conservation plans or to provide emergency assistance to other communities in times of drought.

It also includes a provision under improving “water system efficiency” that’s of interest to anyone upset about local water rates. To be eligible for any state grants for water and sewer projects, a municipality would have to demonstrate that its system:

(1)      Has established a water rate structure that is adequate to pay the cost of maintaining, repairing, and operating the system, including reserves for payment of principal and interest on indebtedness incurred for maintenance or improvement of the water system during periods of normal use and periods of reduced water use due to implementation of water conservation measures. The funding agency shall apply guidelines developed by the State Water Infrastructure Commission in determining the adequacy of the water rate structure to support operation and maintenance of the system.

(2)       Implemented a leak detection and repair program.

(3)       Has an approved water supply plan pursuant to G.S. 143‑355.


In other words, no cutting rates by subsidizing out of the general fund or skimping on maintenance costs.

For more background on this issue, see our May 23 cover story.

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During a Mount Airy City Council budget meeting where commissioner Tom Bagnal quoted Bette Davis (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) and Commissioner Dean Brown quoted Larry the Cable Guy (“Let’s get r done”), by far the most entertaining quote to sum up the situation came via Commissioner Deborah Cochran. She opened the meeting with an anecdote about this recent encounter she had with an employee at McDonald’s.

“He saw me and said ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ I asked if that was Shakespeare. ‘No,’ he said. ‘that’s Metallica.”


My google searching couldn’t find that particular quote from the heavy metal band. Cochran may have been getting mixed up with the Limp Bizkit song Re-arranged. But for the purposes of having a laugh at this dramatic budget season, here’s a few other quotes from Metallica hit songs that could apply to the process.

(on the acrimonious debates on whether to raise water rates) “This is cloud that swallows trust. This is the black that uncolors us.”

(on the relentless search for ways to reduce those rates) “They’re off to find the hero of the day. But what if they should fall by someone’s wicked way?”

(or on the risk of depleting savings or putting off projects to fix crumbling infrastructure) “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel. Was just a freight train coming your way.”

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The Mount Airy city budget is up on ready to view online. It will take at least a weekend to dissect it all, but the bottom line is a water fee increase of 8 percent and a tax increase to boot. The water rate increase is especially dicy, given outrage over last year’s 45 percent hike. The general fund could always subsidize the water/sewer fund to drive down rates, if we can find something out of the general fund to cut. Since the budget document is now in plain view, the work begins combing it for potential adjustments. Any impressions?

(and for context’s sake, here is where to find a breakdown of water rates in other North Carolina municipalities)

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The numbers are coming in on Mount Airy’s water and sewer fund, and once again they don’t add up. Though we’re not looking at another 45 percent increase, a hike of 5 to 10 percent is likely for the fund to break even. For some perspective on how this compares with other municipalities, the state has this interesting data base that makes it easy to see where any municipal utility system stacks up. Playing around on the site shows that Mount Airy’s rates are high compared to other Surry municipalities (some of which subsidize their systems out of the general fund) but when compared to the state or the region as a whole it’s in the middle of the pack. A different way of displaying that data visually is available here.

Of course most municipalities don’t have their rates jump so high at once. This database allows you to compare rates over time for a utility system.

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The recent series of wintery mixes (I won’t call it snowfall) has taken our minds off the drought somewhat. And it’s true that the precipitation has helped our area’s water levels. A quick glance at the Drought Management Advisory Council’s monitoring map confirms this. It also shows that the situation remains pretty dire in the central part of the state, including all of North Carolina’s largest cities.

With no deluge in rainfall expected, Gov. Mike Easley has called for a program that effectively penalizes high water users. To add teeth to the “conservation is patriotic” push, the state now tracks weekly water usage for every system to see who’s cutting back and who’s keeping the taps running.

We’re kind of the odd ones out in Surry. Not only is our drought far less severe, our four municipal systems are struggling to break even and are trying to increase water revenues to replace departed industry. There’s a lingering worry among many public officials I talk to that we might be forced to cut back drastically here on consumption so there’s more water left downstream, which would in turn force rates up.

Some funding for water lines (about 100 miles worth of them heading south) sure would come in handy right now.

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The Mount Airy City Council is going to take a look at the rates it charges for water usage, rates that it raised about 45 percent last year in the wake of losses from major industrial users.Studying the issue is fine because it will give the council and its constituents a clear look at the alternatives. It’s easy to bitch about the water rates, but it’s hard to decide on a fair alternative. The city can’t simply lower rates and absorb the shortfall.So I’m asking our bloggers, where’s the money going to come from? Higher property taxes? Raising other user fees? And if you say “cutting waste,” be specific about what you would cut and how much that would save.

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So the Flat Rock/Bannertown water extension has only half the customers it needs, and they’re only using half the water they need to. That all adds up to a financial mess. The water district is on the hook for the cost of the new lines, $2.5 million to be paid off over 40 years. If things don’t improve really, really quickly the county commissioners, who ultimately hold the purse strings, will have to take some drastic steps, such as forcing people to hook on, raising rates drastically or assessing property owners in the district. None of those are particularly palatable. And yet the extension is necessary — as is an eventual countywide system. But optimistic projections that they can be done on the cheap only make it more difficult the next time around.

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