Council agrees to revisit water/sewer rate increase

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By Jennifer Caldwell

With the recent deluge of rain it seems that water is the talk of the town.  And it will continue to be as the LaFollette Utilities Board makes another attempt to lobby the city council for approval to raise water/sewer rates.

For months the proposed increase has made appearances on the council’s agenda.  The original proposal by the LaFollette Utility Board was for a 20-percent increase implemented in two increments. The increase would be just enough for the water/wastewater department to break even, according to LUB General Manager Kenny Baird.

During last month’s workshop, Councilman Hansford Hatmaker offered a counter proposal of a 20-percent increase implemented in five percent increments over a two-year period. The first increase would be implemented in Jan. 2010, making the minimum bill go from $10.45 to $10.97, and the second five percent increase would come in July of 2010, making the $10.97 increase to $11.52.  The third increase would be implemented in Jan. 2011, increasing $11.52 to $12.10, and the fourth and final increase would be in July 2011, with a minimum bill cost of $12.71.

“I just think this will be easier on the people,” Hatmaker said at the time.

Despite Hatmaker’s motion to pass the water/sewer rate on the first reading the action failed with Councilman Wayne Kitts voting no and Councilman Bob Fannon passing.

On Monday evening Baird again appeared at the council workshop to appeal for reconsideration.

“I want to open up another discussion to see if the board would be open to setting a new rate schedule or would let the utility set the rates,” Baird said stating his intention to revisit the rate increase issue.

Armed with information for the council Baird informed the group that an opinion from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) suggested that the city’s charter allows the utility to set its own rates. While he did not indicate that LUB would pursue that action, Baird proposed the council consider giving LUB the authority to implement incremental rate increases without seeking council approval. Increases larger than the approved amount would have to be taken to the council for a vote, according to Baird’s proposal.

Hatmaker told the group he felt the responsibility for rate increases should stay with the council.

“As far as I’m concerned it is our responsibility and we need to just go on down the road with it,” Hatmaker said in response to Baird’s suggestion.

As the discussion moved on Baird told the council the proposed 20-percent increase to be implemented in 10-percent increments was imperative to the keeping the utility out of the red.  Baird went on to say that LUB is not in the business of making money, and the suggested rate hike would simply maintain the utility’s current operation.

“There was no wage increase this year and it is doubtful that there will be an increase next year,” Baird stated attempting to clear the misconception that a rate increase would help fund raises for LUB employees.

The utility manager emphasized that while 10-percent seems like a large increase in reality it does not translate into a huge expense for the customer.

“It’s not an astronomical amount. When you think 10-percent it’s really only about a dollar for people on the lower end of the scale.  I know that’s easy for me to say, but I have to look at the numbers,” Baird said. “I guess we’re here on bended knee begging for relief.”

LUB board member Mark Hoskins also took the opportunity to weigh in on the issue.

“This is a hard decision, but it has to be done. If we want water and sewer to operate here it has to happen,” Hoskins told the council.

Council member agreed to reconsider the rate increase at next week’s council meeting.