Water, sewer hikes might be justified

Next week the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the city’s budget proposal, and while we oppose the city’s move to increase local taxes with a new $15 per vehicle license tax (“City does not need $15 auto fee,” May 25 Mount Airy News), we’re not as adamantly opposed to a proposed 4-percent hike in water and sewer rates.

No one wants to pay more for water and sewer service, but those operations are — or should be — free-standing enterprises, with rates that generate enough money to pay normal operating expenses, maintenance and necessary upgrades, and address long-term infrastructure needs.

We are concerned about the family struggling to get by, and what effect this would have on them. City Manager Barbara Jones’ said the rate hike will cost $26.16 for the “average” residential customer in the city, though we question what’s “average?” We suspect families with a child or two in their households might find their cost going up quite a bit more than $26. Add to that another $15 per vehicle tax the city wants to impose, and pretty soon we suspect you could find many city households paying out a hundred bucks or more, in new fees and taxes, to Mount Airy (and these folks are already paying double-taxes anyway, as Surry County residents).

We’re also concerned about businesses, particularly large water users, who could see costs climb significantly, with a 4 percent hike in water and sewer rates. A high-water user could see enough of a cost increase to force the firm to look at other ways to cut costs — which could have a negative effect on the local job market.

Nevertheless, ultimately the water and sewer systems must be self-sufficient.

While present water and sewer rates in Mount Airy do cover regular costs of doing business, we suspect infrastructure needs are a different matter entirely. For years city officials have said parts of the water system are aging and nearly obsolete. Older pipes tend to rupture or leak easily, which means service interruptions, expensive repairs, the loss of water that spills out, and the occasional release of untreated sewer.

A rate hike would definitely be justified if the money is needed to begin addressing those needs — not just in repairing breaks as they occur, but in taking a planned, long-range approach toward replacing the older, more fragile portions of the water and sewer systems.

That’s not going to happen overnight. Even if the city had the money, it would take years to do the work. And we suspect, even if the city’s water or sewer systems were running at an annual surplus, it would take quite some time to put aside enough money to pay for those infrastructure replacements.

So if a water and sewer hike can put the city in position to address those needs, perhaps it’s time to seriously consider that increase. At some point, those infrastructure needs will have to be addressed. It’s better, and certainly less expensive in the long run, to try to get out front of that, and do the upgrades in a planned, measured approach, rather than responding to water and sewer line breaks as they occur.

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