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Public, City Meet to Discuss Water Rates

A water rate hike and anger over when the rates were applied to resident billing in October ultimately led to a workshop meeting called by the Van Alstyne City Council on Jan. 7. That meeting was open to the public, and while turnout was relatively light the volume of the dialogue was turned up for approximately three hours on Tuesday night.

In what was probably a bit of over-enthusiasm the city had five discussion items on the agenda. Unfortunately, time at Grayson College’s South Campus — where the meeting was held due to ice storm damage to the city’s community center — was limited and not all the items were addressed.

It was just as well since the residents in attendance had only the discussion of Ordinance No. 699 on their minds. That ordinance set the water and sewer rates, and that ordinance was what many wanted to see repealed. What transpired during the meeting was plenty of discourse, some vented frustrations, a new look at the rates and possibly a small step forward.

And while the meeting was for the most part orderly, the sheer number of voices in the room made it a slow crawl in some respects. Regardless, the end result was that the city staff is going to plug in different rates into a spread sheet (which may be posted on the city website) and vote on a rate change at a future meeting, possibly as early as Tuesday night’s Council meeting.

Van Alstyne Mayor Teddie Ann Salmon said the meeting was good for the city and its residents.

“We didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped we would but we were able to get a lot of good public input,” said Salmon.

“This is exactly what we needed,” said Councilman Russell Moore.

Up first on the agenda was discussion on Ordinance No. 699, which set the water rates for fiscal year 2014. The actual rates took a backseat for a bit, however, as Councilman Jim Smith questioned when the rates went into effect. Most, if not all, of the residents in attendance were critical of the date the rates became effective. The new rates were approved by Council on Sept. 27 and were included in the Oct. 1 billing bringing forth complaints that residents were being billed for water used before the rates were approved. The billing cycle Aug. 16 through Sept. 17 was what the new rates were applied toward.

“It’s not so much the rates, but the effective date. Who set that date,” questioned Smith.

City Manager Frank Baker explained that since Council did not specify a date for which the billing should start the law states that the approved rate had to be applied to the next billing statement. Back-and-forth ensued about who should have told who and who should have known about a specified date, but Moore summed it up thusly to his fellow council members: “We set the ordinance. It’s our fault. If we didn’t make it clear that’s our fault.”

It was unclear at the end of the meeting whether the city is considering a refund or a credit to customers’ bills. Van Alstyne’s billing software is not set up to issue refunds and they would have to be done by hand, not a very good solution for the city’s small staff.

At this point, public comments were requested by Salmon. James Flannery, a former city council member, expressed his displeasure over the negative happenings in Van Alstyne in 2013 and the fact that the current council removed the price ceiling on sewer rates. Those sewer rates in previous years had been capped.

Resident Herb Reed talked about living in Richardson previously and how that city used to adjust water and sewer rates during the winter. Phillip Givens, the consultant the city had originally brought in to assist in setting water rates last year, explained that the practice is called winter averaging. Winter averaging was brought up at several points later in the meeting and will possibly be looked at by Council.

One of the more vocal residents was Darin Clum, who said that the city’s rates for higher-end users (of which he said he is one) was “stupid” and that the city was “stealing money” by retroactively billing for the Oct. 1 statements. Clum, who said he has professional experience in the field, contended that billing at such a high rate for higher-end users actually hinders revenue for the city as people will just stop using as much water and is therefore counterproductive.

Barbie Griffin, who runs Town and Country Home Care & Rehab, spoke for her older clients who were having issues with the new water rates. She also spoke to the negativity surrounding the rates and those who are being publicly criticized for them.

“This affects several people in my care,” said Griffin. “[But] I know everyone on Council and the city manager and their intentions were in the right place.”

During the meeting, a spread sheet was put up on a large screen. The spreadsheet showed the billing rates for usage going from 5,000 gallons up to 60,000 gallons and how Council came to the decision that it did concerning the rates. When concerns about the high cost of water arose, another data sheet was presented by Councilman Billy Plake which showed that Van Alstyne is cheaper on its rates than Anna, Howe and Melissa up to 40,000 gallons (usage above that was not studied.)

Since this was a discussion item and not an action item, Salmon and Baker requested a consensus from Council on a direction for city staff to proceed. Council member Kaaren Teuber wanted a retroactive refund issued to customers and new notification procedures for future rate changes. Smith wanted a $5 rate across the board; Moore wanted a cap on rate hikes around 20,000- 30,000 gallons; Plake said he wanted to plug in lower rates and study the effect on prices (including the city’s depreciation fund); and Councilman John Jennings said he was not in favor of repealing 699 but in favor of a rate restructuring.

In fact, a glimmer of hope for an equitable solution came about when Jennings had City Secretary Jennifer Gould plug in a $3.75 base rate across the board, showing the effect on revenue. Moore liked what he saw and said he would support Jennings’ move. However, that was all preliminary and no new rates have been set. The aforementioned spread sheets will reflect rate changes suggested by Jennings, Plake, Smith and Teuber.

MEETING NOTES: Bob Johnson, of McManus & Johnson, hosted a presentation concerning a potential low-interest loan from the Texas Water Development Board. The gist of the presentation was that the city is eligible for a $3.2 million loan to help fund planning and implementation of connection to the CGMA water line for a “long-term reliable supply of water.” Since this is a loan council members asked for payment information from the Greater Texoma Utility Authority before making any decisions.

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