NEWS- County spike: Water rates to climb 20% this year

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, compounding last year's 30 percent jump to mean customers will 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 struggling with soaring gasoline prices, 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 Daily Progress legal notices and posted on the Albemarle County 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.

"No one likes rates to go up," says Service Authority director Gary Fern, who points to two causes: a rise in the underlying rates (2.44 percent for water and 10.54 percent for sewer) set in March by the area's water wholesaler, as well as $7 million in the Service Authority's own pipe-replacement and other capital spending projects [spreadsheet].

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 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 pipes to improve the health of Moore's Creek in the I-64/Fifth Street neighborhood of Oak Hill. Another 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.

According to an annual rate survey by Draper Aden Associates, the price of water in Virginia cities and towns has climbed an average of 37 percent and the price of sewer by 58 percent in the past 10 years. What's happened in Albemarle, however, has been much more dramatic– a 273 percent increase in a decade.

According to a rate history provided by Fern [PDF], a family using 5,000 gallons per month, an amount in the mid-range of the three pricing tiers [PDF], paid $25.95 in 1999. Today's monthly bill of $59.31 has been slated to climb, starting July 1, to $70.92–- an annual hit to the wallet of $139. 

Former Rivanna Authority director Rich Collins, a member of a new watchdog group, thinks this is the tip of a very sharp iceberg. On May 8, he told radio listeners on WINA's "Charlottesville, Right Now" program that the various water boards– whose spending eventually falls on consumers– are eyeing $400 million in capital projects [mp3-a; mp3-b].

For instance, the wholesaler, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, wants to spend $149.8 million in just the next five years. That includes a controversial dam with a reservoir reaching under Interstate 64 that would eventually replace the storage of the RWSA's two current reservoirs. But it's what the five-year spending plan omits that frightens Collins.

Over $100 million in already-announced future water plans, including a $56 million pipeline, which is considered necessary to fill the new reservoir, will presumably wait for subsequent capital spending plans. And unlike dredging– which an official with dredging experts Gahagan & Bryant recently boasted to City Council always comes in within 10 percent of estimates– the Rivanna Authority concedes that for its large engineering projects, actual construction costs can end up double these preliminary estimates and still count as "accurate."

Kevin Lynch, a former City Councilor and another member of the watchdog group, Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, points out that sharp water rate increases in recent years have allowed the Rivanna Authority to stockpile millions of dollars.

"The only reason they can keep rates down for the first few years," says Lynch, "is that they're sitting on a pile of cash that they've been collecting from rate payers." Indeed, the RWSA's most recent annual report [PDF] shows a cash/investment balance of $30.65 million, and Lynch believes that once work begins on state-mandated sewer improvements, such as the $33 million upgrade of the Moore's Creek waste treatment plant, this war chest will evaporate and be replaced by debt that will lead to a doubling– or even another tripling– of water rates. RWSA's documents admit that a new wave of debt is forthcoming.

"This ought to be called the 'Jim Gilmore' water plan," says Lynch. "Burn up the surplus and hide the inevitable deficit that the plan creates until it's too late for anyone to do anything about it."

Comment from the business community has been mixed. The local chamber of commerce director, Timothy Hulbert, recently signaled his group's reaffirmation of the controversial $143 million plan, but Bill Crutchfield, founder and CEO of the mammoth electronics retailer bearing his name, has blasted the insistence [RTF] on avoiding dredging.

Crutchfield isn't alone. In late April, the local chapter of the Sierra Club demanded a new investigation of dredging. And on May 1, at a high-level meeting at UVA, Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker rained on Frederick's parade by adding his voice to the call for a reconsideration of dredging.

"Once you have a plan approved, it doesn't mean you have to do anything," Rooker told UVA chief operating officer Leonard Sandridge and other members of the multi-jurisdictional Planning and Coordination Council, which invited RWSA director Tom Frederick to speak.

"Getting the permit approved," continued Rooker, referring to the reservoir/pipeline plan Frederick has championed, "gives you the option to execute the plan, and that's a valuable thing. But it doesn't prevent you from getting a bid on maintenance dredging."

Still, Frederick and his chief supporter on the Planning and Coordination Council, the many-hatted Gary O'Connell (the City Manager who also serves the Airport and RWSA boards), kept up the fight.

Frederick, for instance, noted that he's been given a November deadline to submit preliminary plans for a new 45-foot taller dam to replace the existing Ragged Mountain dams that have been pronounced unsafe by ever-patient state regulators but allowed to operate under a series of conditional permits.

"This is like the last," interjected O'Connell.

"From the tone of some of the letters," added a serious Frederick, "that patience has begun to wear thin."

When Rooker, whose Jack Jouett magisterial district includes part of the diminishing Reservoir, was informed that the dams' faults have been known since 1978, wasn't buying into the rush.

"Before we sign a contract on a 45-foot dam," he said, "we have to get a bid on maintenance dredging."

In recent days, a series of revelations about a potential conflict of interest and hotly disputed dredging estimate from engineering firm Gannett Fleming have highlighted the fact that miffed water users have no direct recourse when they disagree with spending decisions. Certainly they can't get relief at the ballot box, since both authorities are led by government-appointed boards.

Although dependent on RWSA's wholesale prices, the City of Charlottesville does give some control of water/sewer rates to an elected body: City Council– who has slated a public hearing on the water plan for May 19. As for City water rates, not yet revealed publicly, that vote is set for June 2.

RWSA chair Mike Gaffney claimed at the May 6 special City Council work session on dredging that despite all the multi-million-dollar structures, City water rates will rise only 1.5 percent annually– County rates by 2.5 percent annually.

Unconvinced County residents can comment to the Albemarle Service Authority's board at its May 22 public hearing on Spotnap Road, but with so much of the spending coming from an unified and unyielding RWSA, there's a worry that some people may have to vote with their feet.