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Flowery Branch ready to increase water, sewer rates
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Flowery Branch customers may have to pay at least 20 percent more each month for water and sewer starting in July, as well as a new monthly service charge for city utilities and solid waste.

On June 4, the Flowery Branch City Council approved the fiscal year 2009 budget, but had to cut nearly $400,000 in planned capital improvements for the city sewer and water system to balance the enterprise fund, which includes water, sewer and solid waste services.

For the past several years, the city’s enterprise fund has operated at a loss.

With the general fund and enterprise budgets already approved, the city is committed to new sewer and water rates in addition to monthly service charges for water, sewer and garbage to balance the enterprise budget.

The City Council will consider the rate increases and service charges Wednesday.

Bill Andrew, Flowery Branch city manager, said he projects sewer and water revenues to increase 47 percent this year.

He said a recent study showed the city currently maintains very low utility rates, and except for meeting the requirements of a bond agreement, it hasn’t raised operational utility rates since 2000. The proposed service charge rate structure could impose an additional monthly fee of $3.50 for water, sewer and garbage customers; a $2.50 fee for water and sewer only customers; and a $1 fee for garbage only costumers.

Diane Hirling, mayor of Flowery Branch, said the service fees would support the rising costs associated with city staff reading water meters and collecting debris not picked up by Red Oak Sanitation, mailing bills and handling telephone calls regarding services.

"I think people are sort of understanding that costs are going up all around," Andrew said.

Donna Mizerak, owner of Mail and More... in Flowery Branch, is a city water and sewer customer and said as a businesswoman, she understands the city’s rising rates.

"They’re passing the cost along to the customer like every other business," she said. "Businesses are doing what they have to do to survive."

Andrew said the new water rates will include the state-mandated tiered conservation rate, which requires customers to pay more for water after using an initial allotment.

"We’ve held it off as long as we can," Andrew said. "But we have to have some sort of punitive rate for customers where the more water you use the more water you get charged."

The City Council will consider raising the initial allotment for water customers from 2,500 gallons per month to 4,500 gallons per month. Andrew said the average household in Georgia uses about 4,300 gallons per month, and most city water customers won’t break the 4,500-gallon mark requiring increased payment for each successive tier.

The new rate structure also puts master meter customers on the same plane as the average resident, Andrew said. If the new rate structure is passed, master meter customers will be charged a base rate for each residential unit rather than just one base charge per master meter.

Andrew said Mary Jones, Flowery Branch councilwoman, is one of the biggest master meter customers in the city as owner of the Trail West mobile home park off Lights Ferry Road. Jones would have to pay for at least 4,500 gallons of water service for each unit every month, regardless of the amount of water residents actually used.

The City Council also may create new water and sewer rate codes that charge commercial and residential customers more if they operate outside city limits. There also could be different rates for residents within the city limits, where new residents who moved to Flowery Branch after 2000 are charged more for water and sewer.

According to last year’s numbers, the city has 1,113 sewer customers and 935 water customers. About 70 percent of city water or sewer customers fall into the new inside residential category. At the base rate, new residents could pay about $5 more per month for the first 4,500 gallons of water service and about $7 more per month for sewer service.

Chris Fetterman, Flowery Branch councilman, said he’s against the higher rates for new residents.

"Everybody that lives in the city should pay one rate, no matter how long they’ve lived there," he said.

Andrew said the higher rates for new city customers are justified because the city has invested more money in water and sewer infrastructure since 2000. Recently, the city spent about $60,000 on improving water valves and hydrants that haven’t been improved since the 1950s, he said.

As a longtime business owner in Flowery Branch, Jones would not be subject to the new inside residential rates.

"The idea we’re moving to with these new rates is that the water and sewer will be operating on its own," Andrew said. "It’s a slow start to making the user actually pay for the service."

Andrew said the city may adopt equal water and sewer rates for all residents within city limits next year.

In addition to the new rate codes, service charges and tiered conservatory rates, Andrew said the City Council will consider raising sewer and water rates 20 percent Wednesday as required by a five-year bond agreement. Andrew said this year is the last year the city will raise rates 20 percent to satisfy the bond, but instead of imposing the increase in October as usual, the 20 percent increase could go into effect July 1.

Andrew said the bond was taken out in 2004 to pay off the city’s $7 million debt to Hall County for assistance in financing the city’s treatment plant expansion to 1 million gallons. He said the city still owes roughly $2.5 million to the county.