ELKINS — Elkins City Council approved a 32% water rate hike on its second and final reading this week.
A second increase of 3 percent has been recommended for the summer of 2023. After both increases, accounts using the average residential amount of water — 3,400 gallons per month — would see an increase of $15.20 per month, or about 50 cents a day.
Council discussed the rate increase prior to the vote during Thursday evening’s meeting.
“I’ve received this criticism or question, why are we raising the water rates instead of just dipping into the general fund,” First Ward Councilman Rob Chenoweth said.
City Attorney Gerri Roberts said state law limits the city’s options in using money from different funds.
“The water system has its own enterprise fund, just as the waste water system does, as well. The revenues that are generated in regard to the direct sale and the resale of the water produced by the city’s water plant, all of those funds are in that enterprise fund. You can not use general revenues to support that, and you can’t take the funds out of the enterprise fund for other purposes. So it has to operate on its own.
“If this ordinance is passed this evening, it will become effective immediately because it is an emergency rate increase, and it will be coinciding with the next billing cycle.”
“Another question I’ve received is why not cut costs instead of raise rates,” Chenoweth added.
Michael Griffith, a CPA representing the city on utility matters, said, “The city has a commitment to provide service … In the prior year, which I did an extensive review, and in the things that are planned, I don’t see anywhere in those costs where you could make a very material decrease or change that would alter the rate recommendation and still be able to keep people in service.”
Griffith said he was currently working with about 45 other municipalities that are facing water rate increase issues.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Nanci Bross-Fregonara asked if there was help for people unable to pay their water bills, noting, “I’ve been hearing from people on fixed incomes, saying, ‘How am I going to pay this extra $30 a month?’”
City Treasurer Tracy Judy said, “We do provide information to Catholic Charities, DHHR, the Salvation Army, Helping Hands, on a regular basis. One of the problems that we see with some people who are behind is they don’t want to apply. There’s nothing that we can do. Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, some customers have been getting help there. The problem with that is, that help may come to us 15 to 30 days after the due date, so then we’re really behind again.
“There are programs out there, but people need to want to help themselves. At times, they may not be allowed any more assistance if they’ve used it a lot.”
Mayor Jerry Marco said the city water department has been working to cut down on overtime costs due to after hours water line repairs.
All council members present for the meeting voted in favor of the rate increase, including First Ward’s Chenoweth and Judy Guye, Second Ward’s Lisa Severino and Mike Hinchman, Third Ward’s Clint Higgins and Chris Lowther, Fourth Ward’s Bross-Fregonara and Fifth Ward’s David Parker and Linda Vest.
Fourth Ward’s Marilynn Cuonzo was not present at Thursday’s meeting.
The rate hike will be applied to the billing period Sept. 15-Oct. 15. The increase will be reflected on bills mailed Oct. 31 and due in mid-November.
City officials said that chemical expenditures have increased more than 100 percent overall since 2018, the first year of operation for the city’s new $37 million water plant. The water treatment plant uses about 45 gallons of bleach daily; the cost of bleach has recently increased from $2 to $3.50 per gallon.
Elkins water rates last increased in December 2017. Under those increased rates, the cost for customers’ first 2,000 gallons rose from $10 to $15.25 per 1,000 gallons, a 52.5 percent increase, and the cost for customers’ next 3,000 gallons rose from $5.49 to $8.50 per 1,000 gallons, a 54.83 percent increase.
The 2017 increase was designed to help the city make the almost $116,000 monthly payments through 2055 to pay for the new plant.