By Jean Cole
The average Athens Utilities water and sewer customer will pay about $12.60 more per year in 2014. But, the increase is nothing new.
The 19,000 Athens Utilities water and sewer customers — residential, business and industrial — have been paying a roughly 3 percent increase each year for 10 to 15 consecutive years — 10 or 11 years for water and 15 years for sewer, Water Services John Stockton said Tuesday.
The city implemented automatic annual increases for water in 2002 or 2003 and for sewer in 1998 just to cover costs, he said. The plan was to raise or lower the increase as indicated each year, Stockton said.
“But, it never worked out because we came up with projects that were needed,” he said.
The rate hikes for 2014 — a 2.5 percent increase for water and a 3 percent increase for sewer — were built into the Athens Utilities Water and Wastewater budgets City Council members approved Monday night.
Under the 2014 budget, the average sewer bill would increase about 55 cents per month in January, Stockton said. The average water bill should increase about 50 cents per month beginning in June 2014, he said.
The average customer uses about 5,400 gallons a month, he said.
The rate increases were needed to cover the cost of inflation, the cost of new development and the cost of replacing antiquated and leaking sewer lines in various parts of town, Stockton said.
Some council members, including Council President Harold Wales, want less of an annual increase in years when the proceeds from a 3 percent rate increase are not required.
Stockton said he understands the desire to reduce the increase if needed. However, he said the city continues to require water and sewer upgrades near developing areas and sewer lines where existing lines are 50 or more years old and disintegrating.
“We have spent $2 million a year every year on capital improvements and upgrades on water and sewer,” Stockton said.
The automatic annual increases “have allowed this city to totally modernize and upgrade,” Stockton said.
He said 30 percent of the water and sewer lines in Athens are new, without including those installed by private developers.
“I have a crew laying water or sewer line every day,” Stockton said.
This summer, workers installed sewer line on Montreat and Sommerest drives, north of Lindsay Lane Academy, to replace 50-year-old clay tile that was causing sewage backups in the neighborhood. Crews also just rebuilt sewer lines in neighborhoods north of Athens-Limestone Hospital because the existing lines were 65 or more years old and worn out.
In addition, a water line on Edgewood Road, which was needed to improve dismal water pressure, cost $175,000 for material and a crew for most of the summer.
“The project was worthwhile but it should have been done 10 years ago but we had no money,” Stockton said. “And that is not the only one we need to do.”
He said the city is better off on water lines than on sewer lines. The city identified 30 miles of old sewer line in need of replacing. Although it has replaced 3 miles already, it still has 27 miles to go, he said.
“We have a plan to do that over the next 10 to 12 year with our own forces, little contract labor and no increase in capital debt,” Stockton said. .
Mayor Ronnie Marks has said he would provide options for reducing the increase at next year’s budget presentation.
Stockton said the city of Athens policy of small annual rate increases has served as a model for other surrounding cities that previously deal with covering costs by enacting much larger rate increases.