The Marie Liest Council Chambers in Ronceverte were filled to standing room only at the Monday night city council meeting with unhappy residents registering their complaints for the water rate increase, which was approved by city council after the public hearing.
Prior to hearing comments from the gathering, Mayor David Smith offered a review of the history of the city’s water system, which was installed more than 90 years ago. The entire 120,000 linear feet of piping that makes up the water system is comprised of four-inch cast iron pipes and two-inch galvanized steel pipes, all of which need to be replaced. A substantial amount of water is lost from leaks every year, Smith said. Repairs are difficult due to a lack of accurate mapping of the locations of the ancient water lines. With each repair made, the site is marked on a master map. But leaks continue to crop up, he said, and subsequently, a lot of money is lost as well.
Water system improvement goals were established in the city’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2014, plus pressure from the state public service commission (PSC) to take care of the unaccounted for water losses, the mayor and council were prompted to establish a detailed two-part infrastructure project to upgrade the water system.
“We have an opportunity with these two projects to help the city reduce the unaccounted for water and to make sure that we’re providing folks with a more reliable water service,” Smith said. With a recommendation for a $2 million funding grant by Region 4 Planning and Development Council to facilitate municipal infrastructural upgrades and improvements, the grant funds were committed to help finance the drinking water project.
The first phase project will replace two aging storage tanks, one on the west end and the other on Brier Hill Lane, replace 12,000 linear feet of water mains, 2,000 linear feet of service lines, 40 gate valves, 20 fire hydrants and valve assemblies, leak detection equipment, 14,000 linear feet of concrete and asphalt trench pavement repairs.
The second project will follow up with adding another 8,200 linear feet of water mains, 2,000 water service lines, 30 more fire hydrants and vale assemblies, 28 gate valves, 9,500 linear feet of concrete and asphalt retrench pavement repairs. Smith said council is looking to reduce lost water from leaks with leak detection equipment and to give the city the ability to shut down smaller sections of the water system when making repairs.
Phase one is projected to cost $4 million and phase two will cost another $2.2 million. Of the total $6.2 million, $3.3 million will be covered by grant funding, leaving the city to repay the remaining $2.9 million plus interest. The city budget, Smith said, shows the city lacks enough funds to meet its required portion for the grants received from the state. These costs, he said, will have to be passed on to the water customers, thus, a rate increase ordinance was enacted.
The community members at the meeting represented some of Ronceverte’s aging population on fixed incomes and others with limited means. Their reaction to the impact of rising water rates was to question where the money is being spent in Ronceverte. They were looking for a commitment from the city to reduce the rates once the projects and their fundings are completed. The mayor and council offered no response to those concerns.
“Everyone who is sitting in here is here to say their rates are too high now,” stated Ronnie Baker. “We are seeing no positive gain from these rate increases.” The cost to Ronceverte for 1,000 gallons of water from Lewisburg is $2.01, he said. “Then the city resells it for $18.61. That’s a 900 percent markup.” Claiming no other alternative, Baker said he intends to file a petition for relief with the PSC in Charleston.
“I feel your frustration,” council member Adam Rosin said. “We are not in control of our water supply.”
The rate increase voted on at the meeting will take place immediately, Smith said, and will consist of $24.10 per 1,000 gallons used for the first 1,000 gallons, then $15.59 for each subsequent 1,000 gallons. Step two rates will go into effect on Feb. 5, 2020, and consist of $28.44 per 1,000 gallons used for the first 1,000 gallons, then $18.40 for each subsequent 1,000 gallons. The ordinance also authorizes the issuance of $350,000 in bonds to cover the costs of engineering and construction.
“As we look at what we’re trying to do to make things better, I don’t think there’s any question that the people sitting [on council] don’t love this town. These are difficult decisions the council must make for the town as a whole,” said Smith.