By James Draper
A series of live tests on the calculations for White Oak’s inevitability-increasing water rates found no happy medium last week – a large portion of the community may see their water costs double on utility bills as early as November.
“Thirty-one percent of the people are fixin’ to take a hit,” council member Thomas Cash said Aug. 8. “I hate that. What do you do? Somebody that’s on a fixed income, that can’t be fixed.”
The council members will feel the same surge in their costs, but that doesn’t make the prospect any easier to sell to frustrated constituents.
“I can justify it – we’ve got to pay bills,” council member John Frazier said. “It stinks.
“How much more we go up because of what’s coming, that’s probably going to be debated.”
The city’s base water rate is currently $24.60 per month after a recent increase. According to city officials and consultants, White Oak City Hall has to increase the base to $35 just to break-even – that’s the minimum necessary to cover the $3 million annual cost to run the city’s water operations while also covering the community’s debt service for its part of the state’s road widening projects on George Richey and Hwy. 42.
“Anybody that uses their right of way, they’re going to charge them,” Public Works Director Tracey Fears said. “They’re going to get their pound of flesh.”
The minimum proposed increase doesn’t include putting away any reserve funds for future water plant upgrades, similar road projects, emergencies and other needs.
Using their own water usage as practical examples of how various hikes will play out, one calculation saw a current monthly water cost of about $42 jump to $75 on one tiered system or $81 on a sample flat rate.
“I know what we have to do,” Cash said, “but from a citizen standpoint you’re real close to doubling that person’s water bill.”
The thought of a 100 percent increase stymied Mayor Kyle Kutch, too.
“It’s going double? How do you solve that?”
It’s a horrible prospect, city coordinator Jimmy Purcell agreed, but the city would be in the same place if council members levied similar increases across the past five years.
“There’s hundreds of variables that could happen with this,” Purcell said. “Basically, it’s going to boil down to: We have to raise the water rates, no matter if it’s a little or a lot, it has to be done.”
It’s because White Oak has kept the rate stable, councilman Kevin Hood added: “We should have been increasing the past few years.”
What’s the next increase going to be? Cash asked. How soon?
“The look in your eyes says come January we’re going to need to do this again.”
According to City Secretary & Finance Director Kristine Toon, “We are going to have do this yearly… If you do a smaller hit now, next year is going to be a bigger hit. Just ripe the Band-Aid off, y’all. I know it’s terrible.”
As of Aug. 8, council members were leaning toward a flat rate for residential customers and debating the merits of flat rate vs. tiered for commercial customers.
“Flat rate is already easier to explain because it’s just basic math,” Toon said. “The goal is to make a decision to vote on it next month so it goes effect in October, and we start building that reserve.”
The live calculations, however, revealed another complication – certain iterations would become a relative cost savings for some commercial customers. City personnel will return with another set of proposals when council members gather again.
“There’s a huge swing in the bottom of your commercial account to the top,” Public Works Director Tracey Fears noted.
“It’s not easy,” Kutch said. “Gotta do what’s best for everybody.”
By James Draper