The cost of water is rising in Gainesville.
Since Jan. 1, the city has been rounding up customers’ water bills to the next full dollar to donate money to those who struggle to pay their utility bill.
That increase comes on top of a 1.9% rate increase each year over the next 10 years.
For years, customers have been able to round up their bill and make a donation. But starting at the beginning of 2022, customers were automatically registered to the program, rather than doing so voluntarily.
Gainesville City Council unanimously approved these changes in October 2020, and they have finally kicked in, a surprise for some residents.
Vicki Bentley, a Gainesville water customer, was charged a full dollar with the Help 2 Others program, because her bill ended on an even dollar amount. She received the highest possible round-up, $1, and said she did not receive notice leading up to the start of the year.
“I think it would have been better not to force the contributions on everyone,” Bentley said. “I think they should have better advertised and let people opt-in to the program. There are some people, times of the year, where they couldn’t contribute every month.”
The program, Help 2 Others, uses the extra cents for Gainesville customers who struggle to pay their water bill, distributed through the Salvation Army’s Project SHARE. The city has been part of the program since 2012, but starting in 2022, people must fill out a form to say they do not want to take part in the program, rather than volunteering for the rounded-up bill each month.
Those who wish to opt-out can do so online. All donations to the program are tax deductible.
“Customers who are having difficulty paying the water bill are referred to Salvation Army,” Water Resources Director Linda MacGregor wrote in an email to The Times. “They administer the program, determine needs, work with customers on financial management, and determine the amount of assistance to offer. … Each situation varies.”
The program raised $11,000 last year, and MacGregor expects that amount to double this year with more people participating. About 900 customers have opted out of the program so far, and Gainesville serves 57,270 customers as of June 2021, the end of the previous fiscal year.
“We are considering expansions to the program that would also assist with leak repair and other water conservation or water quality improvements,” MacGregor wrote.
Water rates will increase 1.9% each year for 10 years as well.
The extra revenue from the rate hike will be used for capital projects, including improvements to water mains and lift stations, new technology at Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility, electrical upgrades and sewer extensions in the areas of Athens Highway and Gillsville Highway.