McComb selectmen are being asked to raise water rates and the reconnection fee after service cutoff next week in order to avert another possible financial crisis.
At Tuesday night’s work session, City Administrator Dirkland Smith recommended a 2.3%, or roughly $1, raise in the monthly base rate for water service, and more than doubling the reconnection fee from $20 to $50, based on discussions with public works personnel and comparisons with other area municipalities and water associations.
Selectman Devante Johnson objected, saying he frequently fields complaints about the amount of the city’s water bills.
“My phone blows up about this,” Johnson said.
Mayor Quordiniah Lockley said McComb’s water rates are among the lowest in the area, but bill totals add up when sewer and garbage are included.
He said the city needs to take some action on the matter soon, because the city must begin repaying the loan from the State Revolving Fund that financed the Northwest Interceptor sewer upgrade project in June.
The sewer upgrade cost more than $5.2 million, and interest on the loan takes the total repayment cost to about $5.7 million.
The state will take the payment out of the city’s sales tax returns, as it does for the loan repayment for the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and utility funds have to repay the general fund for what is withheld from the sales taxes.
Lockley said the budget line item that should be used to repay the general fund has far less money available than will be needed to make the full transfer.
“We should have started on this months ago,” Lockley said. “I don’t know if we can build up enough money (by June) to make this payment.”
Johnson and Selectman Ronnie Brock argued against raising the water rate and reconnection fee, though the fee got most of their attention.
The reconnection fee “takes money from people who already can’t pay their bill,” Johnson said. “For some people, $20 is a lot. This is going to hurt a lot of people.”
Smith said other municipalities and water associations that had raised those fees had seen declines in the rate of nonpayment, and Johnson said that was not considerate to the citizens.
“You’re out of touch with the people,” Johnson said to Smith.
Smith countered that he had heard people in line to pay bills say they’d leave and come back later because “the fee is only $20.
“When I hear that, that tells me the fee is not a deterrent,” Smith said.
Board members and Smith squabbled over the fees after Smith and Lockley noted that reconnection fees are a line item in the utility budget, with $3,000 budget for this year.
“It’s only $3,000. Let’s just leave it alone,” Johnson said.
“This hits people twice,” Brock said. “Why don’t we just put off the disconnect fee and deal with the water rate?”
Smith said the utility department, from June 2019 to May, had made 3,432 disconnections and reconnections, and 6,864 trips to various homes or businesses to perform those disconnections and reconnections.
“That’s a lot of gas and wear and tear on our vehicles,” Smith said. “That’s manpower that could have been utilized somewhere else.”
While Johnson and Brock said raising the reconnection fee to deter nonpayment would reduce that revenue to the city, Smith said it would be offset.
“If you give me the money to pay for (wear and tear and manpower), and then it goes away, I don’t have to pay for it” and won’t need that money, Smith said.
Brock and Johnson remained lukewarm to the water rate increase, as well, but Lockley reminded them of the loan.
“We have to repay it,” Lockley said. “Help me understand how we can repay it” without an increase.
Both the rate increase and the reconnection fee will be considered at Tuesday’s board meeting.