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Utility rates could rise in Carroll

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — When they might otherwise have still been in bed last Saturday morning, five Carroll Public Service Authority members voted to hold separate public hearings in the future on taking a piece of land for the regional water project and raising rates.

Authority members held a special breakfast meeting at 7 a.m. to consider these topics at Countryside Restaurant, as Gary Larrowe, county administrator and PSA executive director, explained the situations that the Carroll public utilities arm faces.

Larrowe noted that a Sept. 14 public hearing needed to be advertised this week to start the process of condemning what he described as a small piece of property needed for water lines in connection with the regional project with Wythe County and Wytheville to get water from the New River.

Carroll County is in the midst of many water and sewer projects as officials continue to try to get services to the communities that need them, he said. The regional initiative will provide water service to most of the county — about 95 percent of the mountain's plateau, as he put it.

It's an important project, but once piece of property that has not been secured yet could cause a delay, he said.

Landowners aren't working with the authority as well as officials had hoped. The regional water project — also known as long-range water — has been held up, Larrowe said, citing one piece of land in particular.

He identified the property only as a 50-by-60-foot piece of property that's “holding up an $8.6 million water project.”

Carroll's Board of Supervisors has already provided the authority with the power of eminent domain to use if necessary to facilitate ongoing water and sewer projects.

Normally, the PSA would try to get the land at no cost, Larrowe said. If that failed, the the authority would make a reasonable offer.

If that doesn't work, then the authority can use eminent domain to condemn the property.

He indicated that, in one case, landowners agreed with using eminent domain. He explained they wanted someone else to come up with a value for their property.

Larrowe showed the authority members an advertisement that had been typed up, announcing a public hearing — "to consider the adoption of a resolution authorizing acquisition of such real estate and easements by the purchase or eminent domain" — for 12:30 p.m. Sept. 12 in the supervisors' meeting room.

The ad listed not only the regional water project, but also most if not all of the PSA's current and planned water and sewer projects.

The authority is required to list the projects where they propose to use eminent domain, Larrowe told the authority.

Needing to authorize the public hearing, authority member David Hutchins offered a motion to do so. After a second from member Manus McMillian, the PSA approved the motion unanimously, with authority member Tom Littrell absent.

Changing Rates

Larrowe moved on to the PSA's need to change all of its rates to continue qualifying for U.S. Department of Agriculture funding.

The federal agency plays a major role in financing Carroll's water and sewer projects, the county administrator said. With so many projects being planned, it's important to ensure grants continue to come in from the USDA.

Federal representatives recently told Larrowe that the Carroll PSA should stop considering each water and sewer project in the county individually and put them all under the same umbrella.

Accounts for each system developed so far have been kept separate from each other, but USDA wants that to change.

"What they're actually requiring of us is that this be treated as one system," Larrowe said, pointing to a map of the county with water and sewer systems displayed.

Carroll will have to standardize the water and sewer rates for the different systems and for residential, commercial and industrial customers, he said.

"All those in total need to be changed so that we meet the funding guidelines from USDA," the county administrator said. "That's so you'll continue to be grant eligible."

Federal officials did an analysis of the county's rates, and then gave Carroll a breakdown of what the new rates would have to be, Larrowe told the authority members.

So if rates are not in line with a project cost, then the federal grants are not available? McMillian asked.

That's right, Larrowe said. Carroll County could not bear the costs for these projects without grants.

Carroll has benefitted from federal funding for many of its efforts to get utilities to Interstate 77 exits in the county to promote development, such as sewer at Exit 19 and water at Exit 1, the county administrator pointed out. Plus, the county officials have "other hopes and dreams" for projects, as well.

Citizens from communities like Dugspur and Sylvatus have requested the PSA's assistance to get adequate supplies of water, he noted. Those projects could not happen unless the fee structures change, nor could others like Cliffview and Fancy Gap water and Cana sewer, Larrowe said. "If you don't do it, it will disallow all of them."

A handout showed proposed rate changes:

• a $24 minimum for up to 2,000 gallons of residential water, plus $6.60 per each additional 1,000 gallons.

That's compared to current rates of $22 for the first 2,000 gallons and $5.50 for each additional 1,000 gallons.

• $37.20 per month for up to 4,000 gallons and $6.60 for each additional 1,000 gallons for commercial water. Current rates are $32.29 plus $5.40 for each additional 1,000 gallons.

• non-user rates could change from $22 per month to $24.

• residential sewer rates are proposed as $25 per month for up to 2,000 gallons treated and $8 for each additional 1,000. That's up a dollar from the current minimum of $24 per month and $7.50 for each additional 1,000.

• commercial sewer rates would go from $30.75 for the minimum to $35. Plus each additional 1,000 gallons on some would cost $8.50 per, up from $7.50.

• non-user fees for sewer would go up $1 to $25 per month.

Changing the rates will also require a future public hearing.

Concerns about increasing rates are understandable, Larrowe said. "This situation is we've got potential opportunities and, without the rate structure change, it will not be able to happen."

These increases are only one cent over the minimums that USDA told Carroll County officials they needed to charge, Larrowe said. "We are staying as close as practical and possible to the exact numbers the USDA provided us."

Will these changes cover what the PSA needs? Authority member Jeanette Dalton asked.

"Is this really where we need to be? The answer's 'no,'" Larrowe said. "Is this the minimum that we have to be? The answer's 'yes.'"

No one wants to increase rates, but there's no other option, said PSA Chairman Sam Dickson.

The PSA has added many projects to the water and sewer systems and there are more the authority wants to do. "You all know the commitments we've made, what we want to do as a board," Dickson said. "It comes to the point, do we abandon our plans or do we still think we're on the right track?"

PSA members know that people have trouble getting by without water, Larrowe noted. Water is a top priority for people. "These projects have faces on them."

Because of the requirement that sewer rate changes be advertised 60 days before a public hearing, county officials would schedule both the water and sewer public hearings for their meeting in November, Larrowe explained. Because of scheduling conflicts, the November meeting will take place on Nov. 16, the third Monday of the month.

Hutchins made a motion to schedule the public hearing for November, and it was approved unanimously.

A Last Resort

After the meeting, Larrowe explained that the PSA does not want to condemn private property, but sometimes that's the only way to provide for the good of all citizens.

"As evidence to this, the last time the condemnation tool was used by the PSA was in 1998 on the Gladeville-Cranberry sewer project," he wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette.

While considering the land needed for the regional water, the authority also took into account the fact that other condemnations might be needed on other projects in the future, Larrowe said. If that does happen, then the PSA has already fulfilled a requirement in order to make a condemnation happen, and that will allow the process to proceed in a timely way.

"There are no other properties in question at this time and it would be the hopes of the PSA that no other properties would be in question for future project that would allow the PSA to move ahead in a positive manner," Larrowe wrote.

"With all of the water and sewer projects in the ground, or underway, in Carroll County, I find it extremely positive the last time condemnation was used in 1998, and now the current property where the landowners are agreeable to the action."