Members of the White City Council unanimously approved a plan to incrementally increase municipal water and sewer rates over the next 10 years at Monday evening's public meeting.
City water department representative Billy Baker presented findings from a Sweitzer Engineering study, which recommended rate proposals that "would produce sufficient revenues to properly operate and maintain the White water and sewer system" while complying with applicable ordinances and state-mandated regulations.
Baker said their data included audit findings from 2015 and 2016, as well as about 10 months of billing data and financial records pulled from 2018. While those findings suggest the city did not generate sufficient revenue in 2015 and 2016, Baker said the "financial health" of White's water and sewer system appeared to be much better last year.
"White's current water and sewer rates — effective as of Aug. 1, 2018 — should be adequate through 2018," he said.
The big catalyst for the rate increase, he said, was to build up an emergency reserve.
"The USDA bond reserve fund is fully funded and a short-lived asset reserve fund will be funded at $25,000 per year beginning in 2019," Baker said. "That is an emergency fund that every municipality has for emergency and major repairs. We don't have that now — we just hope we don't have nothing that big."
Baker said he anticipates the city's water and sewer system maintenance and operations budget — which he said was $312,133 in 2016 — to increase by about 2 percent each year. "The average water use per customer in each category and as projected for 2018 remain unchanged," he added.
Tabbing revenue from the city's 321 water customers and its 138 sewer customers, Baker said the city was expecting about $545,000 in total system income — $94,488 from water services, $450,513 from sewer services.
"Beginning in 2018, we proposed the following water and sewer rate increase for the city of White," Baker said. "Raise existing base and volume water rates by 3 percent — effective Jan. 1, 2019 — [and] raise the base and volume water rates by 3 percent in both 2020 and 2021."
From 2022 to 2027, that rate would increase by 2 percent each year. "Beginning in 2022, [we will] decrease the amount of water provided in the base rate by 500 gallons per month each year, until the volume, including the base rate, reaches zero, which would be in 2027," Baker said.
Although suggested, Baker said the city will not be implementing an irrigation rate — which he said would be several times the city's base rate. However, he also said that rate may become something that requires "initiation" at a later time if enough large-scale users come online.
As for the city's sewer rates, Baker said there are no plans to increase costs for residential users. However, he said the city would increase the existing base rate and volume sewer service rates for two of its largest users, the Bartow County School System and Toyo Tire.
Those users will see their rates increase by 5 percent this year, with subsequent 3 percent increases in 2020 and 2021. From 2022 to 2027, the base and volume sewer rates for each customer is set to increase by 2 percent annually.
"Toyo's wastewater is a high concentrate of waste that's expensive to treat," Baker said. "The residents of the city that's on the system, no change, it'll stay just the way it is."
Baker described the rate increases as "nominal." He said that a residential water customer's base rate would increase from $12 to $12.36 a month under the first year 3 percent increase, while customers who live outside the city limits will see their bills increase from $16 a month to $16.48.
"This is a very reasonable rate increase," Baker said. "As the report tells us, we're not making any money right now. But next year, if this is approved we'll start that emergency fund and we will begin to accumulate some revenue for these emergency situations so that we don't have to worry about where it's coming from."
With the rate increases in effect, Baker said the city looks to generate about $10,000 in additional revenue for the 2018 year.
"2019, our [operations and maintenance] costs are going to go up, the revenue's going to go up a little bit, debt services will stay the same, we'll start the reserve fund," he said. "At the end of the year, the city should have approximately $24,000 left after all the bills are paid off."
And from there, he said he expects the city generating an additional $4,000 year-over-year until 2027.
"Every utility should have one of these done about every two years," he said. "That way you can keep up with inflation, you keep up with cost of supplies, energy costs and all the state mandates that's given to us."
Other items of interest from Monday's council meeting include:
— The appointment and swearing in of a new police chief — Sgt. Christopher Barnes, who had been serving as interim chief since Dane Hunter resigned from the position last month.
"It has become apparent that no matter what I do to better the City of White Police Department and protect the citizens of White, it is not enough to meet the expectations of the mayor," Hunter's resignation letter, dated Dec. 26, reads. "I have tried to communicate with her but unless she gets what she wants, it's not good enough. [Due] to the hostile work environment created by her dabbling in day-to-day operations of the police department, I am resigning."
— The city council unanimously approved a resolution to adopt the new city charter, which now awaits authorization from the State Legislature.
— The council also approved a resolution to change the format for issuing city employee raises — albeit, not without some discussion.
"I don't think it's fair to give them across the board if this one is performing and this one is not," said Mayor Kim Billue. Councilman Dennis Hutchins asked "Who decides that?" — to which Billue replied "I do."
Hutchins also raised some concerns about getting into "some gray areas" when employee raises are determined by performance measures. "There's some seniority issues, there's some across-the-board issues," he said.
City attorney Leslie Vaughan Simmons weighed in on the matter. "Since the city does have to disclose and all the records are open as far as what employees make, it is most common to do a percentage because there can be no favoritism with that type of pay raise," she said. "However, [Mayor Billue] didn't hire most of the people that were brought in as employees, and things have changed so much she didn't have a hand in setting the pay."
— While the city still has plans to demolish the property it owns at 30 School St. — with "Michael Parker Construction" tabbed as the business chosen for the project, per Billue — councilman Charles Buttrum raised concerns that the proposal may constitute a conflict of interest for himself.
"That's something we're checking into," Billue said.