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By Carmen Ensinger
After talking about it for more than six months, the Winchester City Council finally approved a water rate increase at the May 4 meeting that will take effect with the June billing.
“The reason we put off raising the rates is we didn’t know what kind of winter we were going to have and what the gas prices were going to be like,” Winchester Mayor Rex McIntire said. “We didn’t want to put an undue burden on our water customers during this time, but winter is over and we have to raise our rates if we are going to be able to apply for some grants to help us improve our water system.”
Alderman Lawrence Coultas is on the water committee and has been in charge of looking into grants to help upgrade the city’s water system. The last time the city raised their water rates was in 2015 when they put up the new water tower
“Not only has the cost of making water available gone up since we last raised our rates, but you also have to look at the cost of maintaining your infrastructure when you are setting your water rates,” Coultas said. “We have 11 water mains in town that need replaced and we have been looking at applying for a grant to help with that.”
But, in order to even apply for the grant to help replace the mains, the city has to prove that the average water rate for each customer in the city is $46.88. Now, with computers and all, that might sound like an easy task, but it was not.
“I had to get on Locis and printed out all 826 water accounts for the whole year and went back and found the average of all those to get an overall average and what the increase would have to be to get us up to an average of $46.88 per customer,” Coultas said. “The average customer will be paying an extra $9.69 a month based on these new rates to guarantee we would meet the minimum rate required for the grant.”
Of those 826 water customers, there are 321 that use 2,000 gallons or less each month. Those users will see an increase of only $5.70 a month. There are 604 customers who use 4,000 gallons or less. Their increase will be $10.20 a month.
“I think it is safe to say that everyone wants clean, reliable water,” Coultas said. “Think about something for a minute, you go out and buy a 16-ounce bottle of water and pay $1 for it and you don’t blink an eye. Our cost here is one or two cents for an entire gallon of water.”
Some of the water lines that need replaced are original to the city which date back to 1914 when running water was first pumped to homes.
“If we do this and apply for the grant and get it, it won’t be a 100 percent grant,” Coultas said. “It could be up to a 75 percent grant but any little bit helps. But then there is also a low interest government loan available for the rest of it at 1.5 percent spread out over 38 years.”
Considering the original pipes lasted over 100 years, even though today’s quality cannot compare to that of 100 years ago, Coultas said he’s sure it will last a lot longer than the 38 years of the loan.
“This is an opportunity to get some expensive work done at a rate we can probably afford,” he said. “Payments would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $125,000 a year. That is a lot of money, but we are not going to get it done any cheaper.”
He’s not just whistlin’ dixie there.
“The other thing we need to do is act on this now because we have already seen one increase on the interest rates,” Coultas said. “Before April, the interest rate was sitting at 1.25 percent. In April, the Feds raised it to 1.5 percent to try to combat inflation and at the end of June it is going to go up again. We need to do this rather quickly to beat the June 30 deadline when it goes up another half percentage point.”
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for the city.
“We will never be able to pay for a project like this on our own,” Coultas said. “And there will never be a cheaper time to get it done. I think our council has shown our reluctance to raise the rates on water by putting it off this long. It is not something we have taken lightly but we are trying to maintain our water system for the future.”
The council unanimously approved the rate increase which will begin with the June billing.