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Water Billing Issue Taking Center Stage in Van Alstyne

Despite cooler weather rolling into the area, tensions have heated up concerning the City of Van Alstyne’s water billing. With residents speaking out at October’s city council meeting and continuing to voice their displeasure on everything from Facebook to VA Virtual Town Hall to city clerks themselves, the issue does not seem set to fade away anytime soon.

The issue, say some residents and business owners, is that the city’s new water rate structure has caused their billing to rise dramatically. Furthermore, residents are unhappy that the new rates went into effect Oct. 1 for usage from Aug. 15 through Sept. 15. The problem, according to residents who spoke up at that council meeting, is that these new rates were not in effect during the actual usage period.

An overview of the city’s water structure is in order at this point. At its base, there was a 7 percent increase for the new 2013-14 fiscal year. This affects every user no matter the amount they use per month. For users who use 5,000 gallons or more per month an additional 8 percent is added bringing the total to 15 percent per month for the average user (widely considered to be 7,000 gallons per month); at the 10,000 gallon per month mark the rate increases to 19 percent on top of the base rate (26 percent total); at the 20,000 mark it rises to 35 percent plus the base rate (42 percent total); at 30,000 gallons per month there is a sizeable jump to 47 percent above the base rate (54 percent total); at 40,000 the number jumps to 61 percent (67 percent total); at 50,000 it rises to 75 percent (82 percent total) and at 60,000 and above the rate jumps to 89 percent (96 percent total.)

Throughout the numerous work sessions through August and September at which the water rate was discussed two things became clear: more money was needed to go toward the city’s lagging infrastructure and the city intended to treat water as a precious commodity.

On the money side, the clear result is that the higher rates put more money directly into the water and sewer funds. Water and sewer revenue generated go straight back to what’s termed “the Enterprise Fund.” This is the side of the city ledger that encompasses water, sewer, streets, etc. There is a common misconception that money generated by these higher water rates will go toward items such as new police and fire vehicles. Those items are on the General Fund side of the ledger; no water revenue funds can go into the General Fund.

The city’s intent to treat water as a commodity can clearly be seen in the large jumps in rate to high-end users. Those who use 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of water per month will have to pay for it.

The water rate, incidentally, was approved on Sept. 23 with a 3-2 vote (Jim Smith, John Jennings and Russell Moore for and Kaaren Teuber and Billy Plake against.)

Hackberry Apartments property manager Jenny Hampton is one of those who is saying she has felt the sting of the new rates. Hackberry Apartments consist of 37 units, 36 of which are leased out, and tenants’ water bills are factored into their monthly payment. Hampton told the Leader that her bill jumped from $1,731.72 in August to $3,335.78 in September.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Hampton, who said the newer rates are affecting the value of the business. “If this continues for a 12-month period it will reduce the value of my business by $175,000 to $195,000.

“I understand why the city raised the water rates,” she added, “the city is ultimately a business itself; I’m sure it looked good on paper but it doesn’t pan out like that in the real world.”

Plake, the longest-serving member on city council, was one of those who voted against the rate hike. Plake’s objection, however, had less to do with the rate increase itself than the amount of the increase. In the budget, a certain amount of the water fund will go into the depreciation fund, a sort of reserve fund for the city. Plake, however, was against maintaining a depreciation fund and wanted instead to use those dollars to bring down the amount of the rate increase. He stated that he is in agreement that water rates needed to be increased, however.

“We have to repair things,” Plake said, referring to the city’s ailing infrastructure of underground water and wastewater pipes.

Plake also made it clear that if the depreciation fund had been set at “0” he would have voted for the water rate increase. He said the rates still would have gone up for high-end users (of which he is one) but would have lessened, and that the impact to lower-end users would not have been as noticeable.

Plake’s fellow councilman Smith said that he has heard from concerned residents who have seen their bills shoot up dramatically.

“If the new rate structure we put in [place] caused this, we need to fix it,” he said.

Speaking on the Oct. 1 billing issue, Van Alstyne City Manager Frank Baker explained that the wording in the ordinance as it passed set no specific date and according to counsel provided by city attorney Julie Fort, it was required by law to go into effect at the next billing cycle, thus the Oct. 1 billing.

“It is never the intent of staff to negatively impact the citizens we serve. It is our desire to position the city for sustainability and growth by requesting that Council budget to improve the failing infrastructure that has definitely exceeded its life expectancy, and at the advice of the auditor, create a reserve fund to minimize the need for loans in the future, which I feel was clear in budget work sessions,” stated Baker, referring to the work sessions in August and September that were open to the public.

Some have questioned the accuracy of their meter readings, but Baker stated that Public Works employees have been out multiple times to read meters that have drawn “red flags” in the billing software; in essence, those whose bills seem to be skewed due to radical amount changes. Those workers who check the meters, incidentally, do not know the previous readings so mistakes are harder to make, and city staff insist that the billing statements are correct.

“Public Works employees read meters multiple times to make sure they were read properly,” Baker said. “There was a lot of work being put in to make sure everything was done correctly. All we’re trying to do is take care of and do what’s best for the city.”

It is a near certainty that the water discussion will be put on the November city council agenda. Plake, however, has been advising those on Facebook that they need to make their voices heard to make sure it gets on the agenda and that concerned residents need to show up to voice their concern.

“It would be a shame if no one showed up next month to talk about this,” he said.

“Council could consider the impact of the rate change at the regular November meeting and work to determine what is best moving forward,” said Baker.

Residents can request to have an item considered for inclusion on the next city council agenda by submitting their request in writing to City Hall and mark it to the attention of Mayor Teddie Ann Salmon.

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