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Proposed water, sewer rate hikes have some Gainesville City Council support

POSTED: March 22, 2013 1:02 a.m.

The Gainesville Public Utilities Department has recommended rate increases for water and sewer customers for the next fiscal year, and some City Council members have thrown their support behind them.

The department recently held its annual workshop with City Council members on the current and next-year outlook, plus a five-year financial model on rates. Customers inside and outside of Gainesville who get city water would see the rate increase by 3.5 percent. Sewer customers would see the rate rise by 2.5 percent.

“The utility has done a very good job of dealing with increases in operating expenses and lagging sales,” said Kelly Randall, Gainesville Public Utilities director.

The City Council is expected to approve 2014 rates before the new fiscal year starts in July. The new rates would take effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Mayor Danny Dunagan called the recommendation “reasonable.”

“That’s as low as it (the recommendation) has been for quite some time,” said Councilman George Wangemann. “It’s one of the lowest increases that I’ve seen.”

For 2013, the City Council hiked water rates 3 percent and sewer rates 3.5 percent. Rates for 2012 increased 4 percent for water and 4.25 percent for sewer. In the past few workshops, the financial projections showed higher future rate increases due to the bad economy. In the 2012 workshop, the city thought it may have to raise rates by 4 percent for 2014, Randall said.

The city also faces the expense of having to relocate water and sewer lines in the 2014 budget because of Georgia Department of Transportation projects to widen Friendship Road and replace Clarks Bridge on Ga. 284/Clarks Bridge Road at Lake Lanier, Wangemann said. That accounts for about half of the rate increase, he said.

Since the recession, growth in utility sales and water usage is flat, Randall said. Fiscal year 2013 sales for water are estimated to hit nearly 7.1 million ccf, or 100 cubic feet of water, which is equal to 748 gallons. The city’s water billing peaked in 2006 with nearly 8.2 million ccf of volume.

Utility bill increases will vary for some residents because of the rate differential applied to city and county customers.

The “per unit” water charge for residents living in Gainesville would go from $2.44 to $2.52 and from $7.26 to $7.44 for sewer. The percentage change is the same for Hall County residents, but water rates are twice the city rates. County “per unit” rates would increase from $4.88 to $5.04 for water, but sewer rates would match the city rate of $7.44. The city of Oakwood sewer rate would go from $8.16 to $8.40 per unit.

Gainesville does a rate differential study every four years to make sure it’s on target.

Councilman Bob Hamrick said the city has the differential for the services it provides in the county because it gets no benefit for them. When the increases are thought of on a monthly bill, it adds up to only about 8 cents more per unit for water and 18 cents more per unit for sewer for city residents, Hamrick said.

“When you think of it that way, it isn’t very much,” he said.

The department has put off some capital improvement projects, such $30 million in a Cedar Creek Reservoir water treatment plant and related infrastructure, to cut down on expense, Randall said.

It also helped that the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear an appeal to a 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that water supply was an originally intended authorized use of Lake Lanier. It reversed an earlier decision that the lake was not a federally authorized source of drinking water.

“That was a real godsend to us,” Randall said.

The city’s utility services are a $60 million business. It has to pay its bills and support economic development when growth comes, while keeping the service affordable for its customers, he said.

Councilwomen Ruth Bruner and Myrtle Figueras didn’t return phone calls to home and cellphones for comment.

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