BERRYVILLE — The Town Council has postponed, at least by a month, deciding how much it will propose increasing water and sewer rates later this year.

At a work session Monday afternoon, the council spent more than two hours continuing to scrutinize a recommendation and other options put forth by a consulting firm. After concerns were expressed about possibly placing too much of a burden on financially-strapped customers, council members ended up instructing Town Manager Keith Dalton to work with Pennoni Associates Inc. to find some new possibilities.

Rate hikes are necessary, officials have said, to pay for improvements to Berryville’s aging water/sewer treatment facilities and distribution lines, which are expected to wear out during the next 20 years. Pennoni estimates the town may have to spend as much as $25.8 million to repair and replace parts of the system.

“We just want to look at alternatives for achieving all of the revenue needed,” Dalton said after the meeting, “to make sure future rates are as fair and equitable as possible.”

A rate hike proposal was to be decided on during the council’s regular monthly meeting June 11. However, the panel decided Monday afternoon to hold another work session at 10 a.m. July 9 to hear from Dalton about what he and Pennoni determined might be possible. July’s regular meeting will follow at 7:30 that evening.

The council is targeting rate hikes to take effect on Oct. 23, based on the town’s meter-reading schedule.

Pennoni is suggesting that Berryville impose a flat rate structure in which the monthly water rate would increase from the current $8.40 per 1,000 gallons to $9.26 in the new budget year that will start July 1, then to $10.20 in the following financial year. The minimum monthly charge would rise from $5 to $18.51 and then $20.40.

Sewer would increase from the current monthly rate of $17 per 1,000 gallons to $17.39 and then $17.79. The minimum monthly charge would increase from $15 to $34.78 and then $35.58, a report prepared by the firm shows.

The flat rate structure would be the simplest for people to understand, Councilwoman Kara Rodriguez reasoned.

In fact, she said, “it seems about as simple to me as you can make it.”

Another potential rate structure involves customers paying less the more water and wastewater volume they use, which could help the town attract companies that use large amounts of water in manufacturing processes. Yet another rate structure involves residential customers paying higher fees the more water and wastewater volume they use, with commercial, institutional and industrial customers paying separate rates. Pennoni believes, though, that option generally is not right for communities like Berryville that have both aging infrastructures and excess water/sewer treatment capacities.

In addition to higher rates, customers probably will have to pay an “administrative fee” to help cover expenses such as fire hydrants, water quality testing, salaries of employees who operate the water and sewer plants and electricity needed to run them. Mayor Patricia Dickinson fears that in some cases under certain scenarios, customers’ rates could double.

Dickinson estimated that among Berryville’s population of roughly 4,000, roughly 25 percent — including seniors on fixed incomes — may not be able to afford bills that high.

Before higher rates are imposed, customers will have several opportunities to voice their opinions.

A public input session is tentatively scheduled from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Berryville-Clarke County Government Center on Chalmers Court. During the session, residents and business owners can stop by and informally talk with town officials about proposed rate hikes and make comments.

A formal public hearing is planned during the Oct. 8 council meeting.

After rate hikes officially are proposed, a brief summary of them and reasons behind them is to be placed in a future utility bill.

Rate hikes are “more palatable,” Gibson said, the better that people understand the reasons.

Ultimately, Dickinson said, the key to controlling water and sewer rates is to hook more users — both new and existing homes and businesses, including ones outside Berryville — into the systems.

As far as attracting businesses, “we need to have an aggressive economic development plan,” she said.

But that will take time, whereas water/sewer system improvements are urgently needed, council members indicated.

Without those improvements, “the water plant (basically) is going to fall into the river” eventually, Gibson said.

— Contact Mickey Powell at mpowell@winchesterstar.com

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