Ronceverte City Council approved the second and final reading of an ordinance that will increase the city’s water rates by more than 36 percent over a five-year period on Monday. The rate hike is the product of a new law (SB234), passed last year by the West Virginia Legislature, requiring municipal water systems to set aside a reserve fund. With the passage of the vote, the monthly charge for the first 1,000 gallons will rise from the current rate of $15.38 to $21, which will go into effect in late April. Four more rate hikes will increase the minimum charge to $21 in 2017, to $27.50 in 2018, to $30 in 2019, and finally to $37 in fiscal year 2020.
According to Mayor David Smith, it was a difficult decision to raise rates on the city’s water customers. The margin for passage of the ordinance was close, as three members opposed the 4-3 vote. Voting in favor were Smith, council members Gail White, Barbara Morgan and recorder Crystal Byer. Those opposing were council members Adam Rosin, Shawn Honaker and Bob Baker.
Under the present rate structure, Ronceverte could not maintain a water fund to reserve for capital improvements, but under the new state law, the city was pressured to improve the water department’s financial situation by taking steps imposed at the state level to raise rates and to increase the minimum usage figure.
Concerned for those residents on fixed incomes, council resisted pressure from the state to raise the minimum usage of 1,000 gallons per month, but that meant the rate hike would be steeper. The situation, Smith said, required the city to raise water rates high enough to establish the mandated reserve fund, otherwise the city would be forced to accept a more costly alternative – to be taken over by West Virginia American Water.
“We had no choice,” Smith said. “They’re profit-making; we’re not.”
Smith described the city’s aging water infrastructure as “a nightmare.” The water department lost a pump and a pump station last year, which cost $70,000 to replace. And, he added, two aging water tanks, aged 35 and 40 years old, are in line for replacement as well.
Senior citizen Betty Waugh had gathered a petition with 312 names, representing others on fixed incomes who cannot afford to pay more for water. “Citizens are moving out of Ronceverte,” she said, because they can’t afford to live there anymore. “There’s not a nickle left over to pay for anything more,” she said. “This [rate hike] makes it really, really hard.”
“A 70-percent increase can’t be handled by a majority of the senior citizens in Ronceverte,” said Ronnie Baker. “I don’t understand how the city council can charge a 700-percent markup when citizens can’t pay what the rate is at now.”
In other business:
• Eric Hartman, consulting engineer for Dunn Engineering, gave a short report on the ongoing wastewater treatment plant project on River Road. He said the project has been stalled more or less by the winter weather, but now as the temperature warms up and the mud dries out, the project moves forward with concrete being poured at the basin site.
• “This is grant season,” announced city grant writer Doug Hylton, who reported that he has applied for a generator, through a Homeland Security grant, to serve as a backup power source for City Hall and the police department. Other grants he’s working on include one from the Hollowell Foundation and the Arts and Recreation grants from the county.
• The council will lay the levy on Tuesday, Mar. 19.