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Water, sewer rates to change in Halifax County

The Halifax County Service Authority (HCSA) approved the proposed changes to the current schedule of rates and services following a public hearing at its regular monthly meeting Thursday night in Halifax.

Of the handful of those individuals who attended the public hearing, only three spoke to the HCSA board on the proposed rates.

Ted Daniel, South Boston town manager, spoke in support of the rate changes, saying, “The rate changes are in the best interest of the citizens of Halifax County, and that is to adopt the proposed rate plan to comply with the requirement of the grant and funding agency, Rural Development and to insure financial solvency of the authority.”

Daniel said the service authority is one of the most important economic development initiatives that has occurred in Halifax County.

“You, the executive board, and the executive director are to be commended for taking on the challenge of taking on several financially stressed water and sewer systems and turning them into a truly effective water and sewer utility that can successfully compete for future industries and meet any and all commercial and residential development in the urban planning area for Halifax County,” Daniel said.

He said the authority can successfully compete for the critical $10 million grant and the long-term low interest Rural Development loan to expand and modernize the primary wastewater plant located in South Boston.

“As a board, you know the challenges that were facing all the separate water and sewer systems,” Daniel said. “It’s my opinion that the water and sewer rates you would be looking at in South Boston and in Halifax, had we remained separate and gone in separate directions, those rates that would be faced by the community, these (proposed rates) are nothing compared to what you would be seeing had we not taken this approach.”

Retired educator and Halifax resident Linda Mercer spoke against the proposed rate changes, saying she could not find any real benefit of the HCSA for an ordinary customer like herself. “We had cleaner, better water from the Banister than we have from the Dan River,” she said. “And clearly the prices keep going up and up and up.”

Mercer said she has tried to conserve her water usage because of the sewer charges. “It’s not the cost of the water per se, it’s the sewer,” she explained. “Your rates assume that what goes into the house comes out through the sewer, and that’s not the case, at least in mine.

“Anyone who washes their car or waters their lawn is not running water through your sewer system,” she said. ”The burden of your rates seems to hit the little people hardest. And I feel I’m going to end up paying for your new building, should that construction occur.

“It’s one thing when you’ve got industry or you’re trying to talk about the big users, but it’s the little users who can’t deny themselves but so much water usage,” she concluded.

Businessman Mark Repokis, who owns Double Bubbles car washes and laundromats, said small businessmen work on budgets just like the service authority. “I think that the sewer rate is going to affect people it does not need to affect,” he said. “We’re having a difficult time meeting budgets too.

“Property taxes aren’t going down, utility bills aren’t going down, including yours, and the way we pass along to maintain our budget is through pricing in the laundromat,” Repokis said. “And the very people that cannot afford water rate increases and price increases come to my laundromat,” he said.

“The sewer proposal will increase my cost between $2,000 and $4,000 per year,” Repokis explained. “And if you figure it over 10 years, it’s $20,000 to $40,000, and I’m sure you guys are going to come back and ask for more increases. I just want you to understand what you’re doing to us, and I don’t think the sewer rate is warranted.”

HCSA Vice-Chairman Dexter Gilliam thanked the speakers and closed the public hearing. Board member Coleman Speece asked to reply to some of the comments from the speakers. Speece said Executive Director Willie Jones explained the dilemma prior to the public hearing regarding the shortfall of $0.91 per 1,000 gallons of sewer projected for the future.

Speece said because of the Rural Development minimum requirements, the HCSA has no alternatives than to adjust the rates to meet those requirements in order to qualify for the $16 million in the form of a grant and loan the board is seeking to expand the wastewater treatment plant.

Jones explained the Department of Environmental Quality’s consent order says the HCSA must address problems with high sewer flows that are causing the authority to violate the permit requirements. Jones said most of these flows come from the fact the sewer system is so old in the community. He said the two options the board has are to expand the plant to treat the additional flows (what is being proposed), or they can rehabilitate all the sewers.

Jones said the choice came down to spending $16 million to expand the treatment plant or spending $35 million to $40 million rebuilding all the sewer system.

“And we felt this was the better alternative of the two,” he said. “The DEQ consent order has the force of a court order, and we have to address it, so that’s forcing us to borrow the money to make the improvements.”

Speece reminded those present the HCSA has no taxing authority, and everything the authority spends it must take in. He also addressed Mercer’s comments, saying Halifax had been faced with having to spend about $4.5 million to upgrade its water treatment plant. He said with about 600 users in the Town of Halifax, even with significant grants, water and sewer rates in the town probably would have more than doubled.

“The creation of the authority really saved the Town of Halifax from a tremendous dilemma, so your rates have gone up some,” he said.

Gilliam addressed the proposed new building, saying, at its inception, the HCSA had two staff members, and the county served as fiscal agent with the HCSA paying the county $60,000 per year. That fee has been increased to $104,000, and it is soon to go to $144,000 per year for the county to provide those services.

Gilliam said when they looked at ways they could be more efficient, they found by looking at the numbers and running the cash flow, they could probably hire one person, pay the debt service on the building and still come out ahead of paying the $144,000 a year for the fiscal agent fees. He also said the building would consolidate all departments of the HCSA under one roof, where they are spread out now.

“Then the town stepped forward with an attractive proposal to try and make that work,” Gilliam said. “And I think from an efficiency standpoint, it will be an improvement for our staff, and also from a cost standpoint, it will be better, certainly no more, than paying that kind of money we would be paying in fiscal agent fees.”

Following the discussion, board member Stewart Nelson made the motion to approve the proposed water and sewer rates, with Dr. Major Wray providing the second. The HCSA board unanimously approved Nelson’s motion, with Doug Bowman, Thomas Walton and Fred Mistal absent.