ELIZABETHTOWN — With the recent passing of Elizabethtown’s fiscal year 2016-17 budget, residents may have been surprised to see that water and sewer rates will not be taking the upward hike they thought.
After February’s budget planning retreat, the Bladen Journal reported that water rates were going to be raised from $19.59 to $33, and sewer rates would see an increase from $27.31 to $33 once the new budget goes into effect in July. At the time, Elizabethtown Public Works Director Pat DeVane told the board that the North Carolina General Assembly had passed a statute regulating grants for wastewater management.
In the past, grants have been available to help offset costs incurred in water and wastewater management. Those grants are now going to be handed out based on local water rates and the amount of debt per connection, both of which are low in Elizabethtown — so low, in fact, that the current water rate of less than $20 puts the water division in the lowest 8 percent in the state with regard to cost.
“The state of North Carolina said to us and to other towns that we needed to have a minimum sewer bill of a little over $33 for 5,000 gallons of use,” said DeVane. “We tried to tweak the rate table so that someone that uses 5,000 gallons of sewer would have a $33 bill.”
Elizabethtown Chief Finance Officer Jay Leatherman explained why water debt per connection and water rates affect sewer bills.
“If a customer has both water and sewer, and if they use 1,000 gallons of water, they get charged for those gallons, but there is separate rate for sewer, the theory behind it being that if they drew 1,000 gallons of water, those gallons were drawn back out in terms of sewer, so we use water usage to calculate sewage costs.”
Because the residential water rates are so low in Elizabethtown, the town would not qualify for grants for water and sewer. If the town didn’t qualify for grants or low-interest loans, sewer rates would have to be raised in order to cover the costs currently accounted for by grants or to cover the higher interest of loans.
“The thing that I think is important to understand is that the state drives the numbers,” DeVane said. “When they tell you that your average sewer bill isn’t enough and you don’t qualify, they are saying your bills are too low. We can all sit back and speculate that they shouldn’t set rates and have that conversation, but, in essence, we have to do what they’re saying.”
Fortunately for Elizabethtown customers, the water rates will not be increasing. Sewer rates will see a hike, but currently, the average monthly bill, according to Leatherman, is around $27 for the monthly average of 3,200 gallons, and it will rise to a little over $33 for 5,000 gallons.
“We didn’t increase rates for the last two years, and this will put us where the state says we need to be,” said Leatherman. “At least now, if we need to do major work, we’ll qualify.”
Rate changes will take effect July 1, so customers will see adjustments reflected on the bill received in August.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.