BERRYVILLE — At least two people are unhappy about the town’s plans to charge more for water and sewer services beginning later this year.
They were among just five people — other than town officials — who attended Berryville Town Council’s meeting Wednesday night to explain to residents the increases and the reasons behind them.
During a public comment period, Wayne Webb said that by charging more, “you’re penalizing lower-income users” and customers who use lesser amounts of water and sewer capacity.
“You’re making it hard for people who want to live here,” said another resident, Lonnie Grubbs.
Both men scorned the town’s proposal to tack onto bills $2.50 administrative fees for water as well as sewer service. That would be a combined $5 increase.
Town Manager Keith Dalton said the fees are intended to help the town recoup some of its expenses for operating and maintaining the systems, such as water quality testing and personnel, meter reading and billing costs.
Currently, “folks on the lower end of usage are paying a lower percentage of those costs” than those who use more, Dalton said. The administrative fees are intended to even it up, out of fairness to all customers, he said.
The administrative fee for water is to go toward maintenance of the water system, and likewise for sewer, according to Councilwoman Erecka Gibson.
Legally, as water and sewer are separate enterprise funds, “you can’t mix money” between them, Gibson said.
Webb suggested that the town, to reduce operations and maintenance costs, go back to sending bills four times a year instead of monthly.
Officials say that by billing more often, meter readers can more quickly discover problems that, if not fixed, could end up costing either residents or the town more money in the long run. Water leaks are an example.
In examining Berryville’s water/sewer infrastructure recently, Pennoni Associates Inc. of Winchester identified more than $35 million in improvements needed by the systems during the next 20 years to keep them from failing.
“Water is a vital resource,” said Tom Frederick, Pennoni’s associate vice president and director of water/wastewater practice. “Sometimes we take it for granted until it’s not there.”
Although the systems have “more than adequate capacity” to handle future growth within Berryville, he said, the water system especially needs to be upgraded because it has not undergone as many minor improvements in recent years as the sewer system. If a water supply problem occurs, the town lacks infrastructure to obtain water from nearby communities that might be in a position to help out, he added.
To help Berryville pay for the improvements and operate the systems more efficiently, Pennoni suggested that the town increase its water rate by at least 10.2% and its sewer rate by at least 2.3% annually for the next five years. The firm also is recommending that the town increase its water service availability fee by at least 130% but reduce its sewer service availability fee by 42%.
The town’s plan does not correspond to all of Pennoni’s recommendations.
It proposes to reduce the water rate by 25 cents, from $8.40 to $8.15 per 1,000 gallons used. The sewer rate is proposed to increase by 27 cents, from $17 to $17.27 per 1,000 gallons of water used.
With the administrative fees, the total monthly water/sewer bill for customers using 1,000 gallons of each would be $30.42, an increase of $5.02 from the current $25.40. For each additional 1,000 gallons used, the total bill would increase by another two cents — $5.04 for 2,000 gallons, $5.06 for 3,000 gallons and so on.
The minimum monthly fee for customers using less than 1,000 gallons still would be $5 for water and $15 for sewer. With the administrative fee, however, the total bill would go up by $5, from $20 to $25.
Pennoni has suggested “a graduated increase in the administrative fee” for each service during each of the next five years, said Frederick, who is based at the firm’s Virginia Beach office. That would take the fees for both water and sewer to $22.50 each.
Mayor Patricia Dickinson emphasized that the council has not decided whether to adhere to that suggestion.
In setting the proposed rates, council members were concerned about any increases being too much for customers — especially those using lesser amounts of water and sewer capacity — to handle at one time.
By charging the administrative fees, enough revenue can be generated to fulfill needs while reducing the water rate, according to Dalton.
Wednesday night’s meeting started at 7 p.m. Within a half-hour, Frederick had completed his presentation, and Webb and Grubbs had make their remarks. Still, the council remained in its chamber at the Berryville-Clarke County Government Center on Chalmers Court until 8:30 p.m., the meeting’s advertised ending time, in case any residents were to arrive late. Nobody did, though.
“I hope that the modest turnout reveals that the town council has done a good job reviewing this matter in a very open and logical fashion,” Dalton wrote in an email on Thursday.
Anyone with questions or comments about the proposed changes has one more opportunity to speak up. A formal public hearing will be held during the council’s next regular monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8.
The new rates are targeted to become effective on Nov. 22, a meter-reading day. But that date has not been firmly established, Dickinson said.