By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL - Stricter federal rules and costly projects mean higher utility bills for town residents in the future. But Front Royal also may raise fees charged to connect to water and sewer - a move that some members of Town Council say could drive away potential builders.
Council at its work session Monday discussed proposed changes in the rates for water, sewer and refuse collection that would take effect July 1. Town staff presented the draft of a proposed ordinance that, if approved, would set the levies for the utilities.
The ordinance to adopt the proposed rates states that the town is mandated to upgrade the water treatment process by reducing disinfectant by-products. Likewise, the town must upgrade the wastewater treatment process to reduce nutrients it discharges to the Chesapeake Bay, the ordinance states.
As Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden explained, the town also faces a problem with customers using less water and sending less wastewater to the sewer system. This results in less revenue to the utility. Some councilmen pointed out that people likely conserve or use less water as the town raises the rates.
The base rate for using up to 3,000 gallons of water per month would increase 23.5 percent from $7.54 to $9.31 under the proposed changes. The rate would increase from $6.47 to $7.99 per month for each 1,000 gallons exceeding 3,000 gallons per month.
Under the proposed changes, the base rate for sewer use up to 3,000 gallons per month would increase 20 percent from $13.10 to $15.72. Sewer use exceeding the minimum amount would increase from $11.27 to $13.53 per 1,000 gallons.
Gilkey-Breeden noted that the average household uses approximately 7,000-8,400 gallons per month. The proposed budget as distributed to council illustrates the impact of the proposed rate changes on a household. Customers who use 3,000 gallons for water and sewer, plus receive trash collection, pay $32.64 per month. The bill increases to $38.78 under the proposed rate and fee increases, according to the finance director. The customer would pay approximately $74 more over the course of the year under the higher rates, she said.
A bill for 7,000 gallons of water and sewer, plus trash collection, would increase by 18.5 percent from $97.13 to $115 per month, the director said. Customers would see their annual cost increase by $221.
The town includes charges for water, sewer and garbage collection in one utility bill. Council also is looking at increasing the fees associated with garbage collection.
The proposed changes in water and sewer rates also would apply to commercial and industrial laundries. For example, water rates would increase from $6.95 to $8.58 per 1,000 gallons up for the first 100,000 gallons. Laundries would see sewer rates increase from $12.09 to $14.51 per 1,000 gallons up to 100,000 gallons.
Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he didn't think the town would raise the connection fees. Town Manager Steven Burke explained that the connection fees for water and sewer would increase by the same amounts as the use rates, or 23.5 and 20 percent respectively. The consultant who recommended the town increase rates also suggested Front Royal adjust the connection fees accordingly, Burke said.
But town officials expect only a handful of new housing projects for the next fiscal year that would require utility connections, according to Burke. As such, officials do not anticipate connections fees would bring a significant amount of revenue to the town.
Councilman Hollis Tharpe commented on the impact that increased fees may have on potential businesses.
"It's kind of like who wants to come and pay that kind of tap fee when they can go somewhere else, in the county, and not pay anything," Tharpe said.
Tharpe later said the town should charge less for water and sewer taps, adding that builders look for bargains when picking places to develop.
"It's not a bargain to build in Front Royal," Tharpe said.
But Front Royal's rates and fees remain comparatively low for the region, according to Councilman Thomas H. Sayre.
Tewalt said he wanted to see comparative data before decided whether to support the proposed changes.
"I know we got to do all these things but I think $11,700 for a 4-inch sewer tap is absolutely expensive," Tewalt said.
The rate and fee changes aren't a surprise and Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker recalled that council a couple of years ago considered different ways to raise the charges over time for residents and businesses. Burke explained the options offered then addressed water and sewer rates but not connection fees, the increases of which would go to offset the cost to upgrades the treatment plants. The rates would pay for the use and treatment, Burke said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org