Water rate increase approved as Lewisburg prepares for major water system upgrades

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The Lewisburg City Council voted to raise water rates last Tuesday evening at their monthly meeting, which was attended by a crowd of concerned citizens.

With council’s approval of the ordinance, the average residential customer’s bill will rise by a modest 12.72 percent starting on Jan. 15, 2020. The rate increase will finance a $38 million water system upgrade and include all water customers of the Lewisburg water system.

A second phase increase will go into place with the commencement of the debt service of the project, or when the project is completed, bringing the percent boost to 73 percent over all. Lewisburg is a regional water supplier serving over 12,000 water customers. This is the first water rate increase for the area since 2012.

In actual numbers, the current rate for the vast majority of residential customers is $8.71 per 1,000 gallons for the first 20,000 gallons of water used. The average residential water customer currently pays $34.84 for 4,000 gallons a month. The modest first phase of the rate increase will bring that same water usage cost to $47.56, an increase of one third.

Greg Belchure, a Chapman Technical Group engineer, outlined the scope of six separate projects that must be undertaken simultaneously for the upgrade. They include relocating the City’s water intake site two miles upstream of the landfill and the salvage yard; upgrading the existing water treatment plant so that pumping time is reduced from 22 hours per day to eight hours per day and deliver 4,000 gallons of water a minute; replace existing water lines; replace existing tanks; replace the water intake system; add emergency generators; and remove intermediate water booster [pump] stations so to reduce maintenance and operating costs. With the installation of a 2.5 million gallon tank, water storage increases will also be doubled and will tend to reduce water outages. The upgrade is designed to intake river water at a lower rate when water levels are low. The reality is, Belchure said, there’s only a limited supply of water in the river.

Advertising for bids for all six projects will get underway around Jan. 2020. Allowing for another five months for agreements to be completed, construction should begin after that. Belchure said the combined projects should be completed within 18 to 24 months, or no sooner than mid 2022.

“These are needed improvements that we’ve been working on for several years,” said Mayor John Manchester. “We wanted to make sure we build and upgrade a system that will be good for the next twenty years.”

The public hearing for the water rate ordinance received numerous thoughtful questions and concerns from residents in the crowded council chambers. Several water customers in the audience were business owners whose water usage costs already amounted in the thousands per year. Most understood that the upgrade was needed for clean, reliable water quality. With the scheduled hike set for Jan. 2020 instead of Aug. 15, 2019, as was initially scheduled, the delay gave them time to manage their “bottom lines.” Others expressed concerns for those on fixed incomes who could be hurt by a rate increase. Water losses were also an ongoing issue, as Belchure stated, “It’s always a battle.”

“What do we get for $38 million?” asked one local resident. “What’s wrong with the system as it is now?”

Several responses erupted at once from around the room – “Low water pressure.” “Boil water advisories.” “The diesel spill.” “The flood.” “Power failures,” and the like. After all citizens had had their concerns expressed during the public hearing period, Manchester thanked everyone for “fleshing out the issues very fully” with their questions, which he said he appreciated.

In terms of grant funding, Manchester said the pool of applicants for grant funding is large and the system is skewed away from Lewisburg owing to other municipalities having lower income averages and are more eligible for certain grant funding. Manchester said the city will pursue grant funding, but he doesn’t expect more than $2-3 million to come from grants.

In other business:

  • Council member Mark Etten, in covering the Finance Committee meeting, stated that two Arts & Humanities funding requests were awarded: $8,000 to the Lewisburg Literary Festival and $6,300 to Significant Cinema, Inc. for three outdoor film events to be held at Carnegie Hall. Additionally, the Lewisburg Elks Pool received $2,000 from the City’s Video Lottery fund account.
  • The Civil War Trail grant for $12,719 was paid out to JDL Contracting for the completion of the trail now open for walkers from the library to the Confederate Cemetery.
  • An issue arose with Greenbrier Excavation and Paving having received the bid to pave the parking lot at Dorie Miller Park, Etten said. The paving company has also been contracted to pave and repair several streets in town, but with that project still uncompleted as scheduled, the question was raised – why award the park bid to them? Greenbrier Paving responded, stating they had weather and scheduling issues that caused the delays. The company promised to finish the streets before moving on to Dorie Miller Park, and to have all paving done by the end of June.
  • Fire Chief Joey Thomas was approved to advertise in-house to hire three firefighters. He said the added personnel on staff will beef up the two to three station members who maintain 24 hour shifts. He said the shortage has meant that only two firefighters arrive as first responders to a burning structure fire. OSHA recommends that two men inside the structure are to be supported by two others outside, so that should a problem occur, the two inside are protected with back up. Additionally, the city council approved the adoption of fire department pay scale and employee wage adjustments.

Council member Joseph Lutz followed up with a comment, stating, “Firemen are heroic people, who put themselves on the line. The three new firefighters will help us defend the first due area. Those who live outside city limits, but pay more for fire services, deserve to see how their funding of the fire department is benefiting them. The new firefighters and the wage increases to the department are needed and appreciated.”