More users ease burden of water, sewer repairs

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, July 29, 2012

     City officials appear poised to borrow about $4.4 million to renovate Brookhaven water and sewer lines and extend service to some areas annexed into the city five years ago.

     About $1 million of the money would be set aside for repairs of the most decrepit areas on the city’s aging lines, while the remainder would go toward extending water to Oak Hill Drive, Morton Estates and Crooked Lane. Under the proposal, sewer lines would also be provided to Moreton Estates.

     If approved, the loan will be paid back through increased water and sewer rates. Monthly water bills could go up about $6, although phasing in the increase a dollar at a time over a period of years also has been suggested. A gradual phase-in of the higher rate has merit and could help those on fixed incomes better deal with the increase.

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     Money from the city’s general fund cannot be used to repay the loan because water and sewer funds are fee-based, city attorney Joe Fernald explained.    

     However, Mayor Les Bumgarner has voiced the idea that the city could consider lowering property taxes to offset the rate increase and ease the burden on existing water and sewer customers. This idea too has merit.

     The earliest the aldermen can vote on the proposed loan is the city’s next board meeting Aug. 7.

     While some water department customers might argue they don’t want to see their rates go up to pay for extending service to new users, the needed repairs on the existing system cannot be ignored indefinitely. Camera footage filmed in city sewer lines earlier this year showed lines with holes and cracks that are leaking groundwater. Other footage showed extensive grease deposits that need to be cleared away.

     And it’s not just the need for repairs on the horizon; the city also may be looking at replacing the water treatment plant in 2015 when the current license expires. “I can almost guarantee you that’s going to be a $10-to-$15 million project,” Bumgarner said at last Tuesday’s board meeting.

     With renovations needed on the current system, adding new water and sewer customers to help share the cost burden makes sense. While the city can’t legally require the 93 houses in the proposed new area to hook up to water lines, sewer hookups are mandatory, and with new customers comes more income for the water department.

     Unless the customer base grows, existing water and sewer users could see even larger rate hikes to come as the system continues to age with each passing year.