The Harrisburg Town Council backtracked this month to rescind recently approved water rates that more than doubled bills for some residents.
When the council approved the fiscal 2011 budget in June, they also approved changes to the water rate structure.
The new structure charged residents a fixed rate based on the cost of the capacity of the water lines that connect to their taps. The previous rate had been a variable rate based on consumption.
The altered rate structure came on top of a new stormwater fee intended to help pay for drainage issues around town. That fee - $4.64 per month for single-family homes and $4.64 per equivalent residential unit on non-residential property - went into effect July 1.
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But after town hall received more than 200 calls from residents complaining about the higher bills they received in August, the town council took a second look at the rates and decided to scrap the changes and return to the former water rates but with an 11 percent increase.
Perry Rivers of Harrisburg, addressing the council at its regular Sept. 13 meeting, said his water bill jumped from $9.35 to $18.36 after initial changes to the rate.
"Don't vote for something you don't know what it is," he said.
Town Administrator Michele Reapsmith said the water rates were changed from consumption-based to capacity-based because the town must pay for capacity, a cost much higher than consumption.
The town pays about $1.3 million every year to purchase water from Concord.
Before the changes, a resident who used 2,000 gallons of water and 2,000 gallons of sewer a month would pay $16.81. But the town's monthly cost, which includes treatment and transportation of the water through the lines, is $33.90.
To make up the difference, the town was dipping into its fund balance.
Reapsmith described the old rate as "critically inadequate" and said the fund balance was too low.
"We can't afford to subsidize it anymore," she said.
Residents within town limits using less than 2,000 gallons of water saw their bills increase dramatically because they paid the minimum cost of $16.81 - $9.35 for water and $7.46 for sewer. Residents using more than 2,000 gallons were billed on a tiered-rate structure that charged them incrementally more if they used more than 2,000, 6,000 or 9,000 gallons of water.
Although the changes increased bills for some, residents who used more than 6,000 gallons of water saw a reduction in their bills.
"We all thought things were going to be good," said Councilman Jeff Phillips. "Obviously, it's not."
Councilman Bob Scaggs said it was wrong to increase water bills for residents using low amounts of water, many of whom are elderly people whose only income comes from Social Security, while giving a break to residents using several thousand gallons of water.
"You can't walk in and double someone's rate just because the government messed up," he said.
Scaggs said he knew of a Harrisburg woman who was charged $16.81 bill for using 1,950 gallons of water before the changes. After the changes, she received a $43 bill for using 2,150 gallons, he said.
"I feel badly I didn't understand the impact," said Councilwoman Rhonda Poppen.
Council members asked Reapsmith to determine a percentage increase that would cover the town's water costs, and the council reconvened the following day to take up the issue again.
Reapsmith said an 11 percent increase was the lowest increase that would allow the town to cover its costs, assuming that consumption and cost rates remain the same.
The council unanimously voted to rescind the new rate structure and return to previous rates with an 11 percent across-the-board increase for residents and businesses.
With the 11 percent increase, the new minimum cost will be $18.66 for residents living in town limits.
Residents whose bills increased as a result of the initial changes will receive a credit on their next bill, and those whose bill decreased as a result of the changes will owe the town.
Bills for August with credits and adjustments for the new rate were expected to be mailed by Sept. 27.
"When we spill milk, we've got to clean it up," said Scaggs.
Town officials are working to restore a handful of wells in Harrisburg and build a water treatment plant.
The town spent $1,156,000 to dig the wells and build a water storage tank off Rocky River Road to allow the town to provide its own water.
But the water drawn from below Harrisburg had a high concentration of calcium, which created hard water and drew complaints from residents. The wells were turned off in 2008.
Reapsmith said restoring the wells and building the treatment plant will decrease the town's dependency on other municipalities.
The town is waiting on financing for the water-treatment plant, which could cost about $1 million with necessary piping. Construction could begin as early as next year.