County water rates to spike 20%
In what a group of water watchdogs fear could be a harbinger of harsher things to come, County water bills will spike 20 percent this year, if rates proposed by the Albemarle County Service Authority win approval. The increase would combine with last year's 30 percent jump to mean customers would pay 55 percent more than just two years ago and nearly triple what they paid in 1999.
"It's ridiculous," says longtime Albemarle citizen Lucy Bennett. A catering company employee, the 24-year resident of Minor Ridge Road cites soaring fuel and other bills and says she'd like to sign a petition to roll back water rates. "Everything's draining us right now," she says.
The rates, recently advertised in the Daily Progress legal notices and posted on the Service Authority's website, show water climbing 11 to 13 percent. But the bulk of the increase comes in sewer rates, which will jump 29 percent. For a family using 5,000 gallons per month, an amount in the mid-range of the three pricing tiers, the monthly bill would climb from $59.31 to $70.92–- an annual hit to the pocketbook of $139.
"No one likes rates to go up," says Service Authority director Gary Fern, who points to two causes: a rise in wholesale rates set in March by the area's water supplier, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, as well as $7 million in pipe-replacement and other capital spending projects [spreadsheet]
On March 24, the Authority upped the rate it charges the County for water by 2.44 percent and the amount for sewer treatment by 10.54 percent, according to the current budget [PDF].
As for the County Service Authority's capital projects, some big water line replacements include $286,300 for Reservoir Road, $842,200 for West Leigh subdivision, and, in what appears to be the biggest expense for a single customer (until one considers the talk of a nearby development), $252,700 to replace the old cast-iron water line to Camp Holiday Trails.
One of biggest sewer projects is $650,000 to replace septic tanks with sewer lines to improve the health of Moore's Creek in the I-64/Fifth Street neighborhood called Oak Hill. The other is $1.3 million for the design phase of what might eventually be a $7 million project: creation of a new and expanded sewage pumping station for Camelot and Briarwood subdivisions, UVA Research Park, GE/Fanuc, the National Ground Intelligence Center, and eventually the proposed North Pointe development.
In recent days, a series of revelations about the water supplier's decision to ditch dredging in favor of a controversial $143 million dam/pipeline/treatment upgrade have highlighted the fact that miffed water buyers may have little recourse when they disagree with spending decisions. Certainly they can't get relief at the ballot box, as both Authorities are led by government-appointed boards.
Former Rivanna Authority director Rich Collins told radio listeners on WINA's "Charlottesville, Right Now" program today that the various water boards are eyeing $400 million in capital projects that will eventually be borne by water buyers.
The City of Charlottesville, however, does give control of water/sewer rates– while still dependent on the wholesale rates set by the Rivanna Authority– to an elected body, the City Council. And Council will hold a public hearing on its water plan May 19. As for its water rates, not yet revealed publicly, that vote is set for June 2.
Aggrieved County residents can complain to the Service Authority's board at its May 22 public hearing on Spotnap Road at 9am, but with so much of the spending coming from the wholesaler, the Rivanna Authority, there's a worry that some people may have to vote with their feet.
Kevin Lynch, a former City Councilor and member of the watchdog group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, says that sharp water rate increases [pdf] in recent years have allowed the Rivanna Authority to stockpile millions in cash. Indeed, the most recent annual report shows a balance in cash and investments of $30.65 million. Lynch believes this money will evaporate once work begins on state-mandated sewer improvements and the controversial dam/pipeline.
"The only reason they can keep rates down for the first few years is that they're sitting on a pile of cash that they've been collecting from rate payers," says Lynch. "This ought to be called the 'Jim Gilmore' water plan– burn up the surplus, and hide the inevitable deficit that the plan creates until it is too late for anyone to do anything about it."
Recent comment from the business community has been mixed. William Crutchfield, founder and CEO of the mammoth national retailer bearing his name, has blasted the decision [RTF] to avoid dredging; however, the local chamber of commerce director, Timothy Hulbert, recently signaled his group's reaffirmation of the $143 million plan.