STRASBURG — Tensions ran high at a Monday work session where the Town Council discussed the potential consequences of replacing old water meters with smart meters and paying for a water rate study.
Though the town would be facing an estimated $806,000 to fund the replacement of old water meters with smart meters, Town Manager Wyatt Pearson said there’s enough money in the town’s water fund to pay for the project upfront.
“There was intention by previous council [members] to bolster that fund over time,” Pearson explained in a Tuesday phone call. He said he wasn’t sure how much was in the fund, but that the last time he checked — in the last year or two — it was over $2 million.
Concerned with the prospect of the town not paying off the cost in full and having to pay down a more-than $800,000 bill, Vice Mayor Scott Terndrup pushed for details on possible consequences of financing a project that might not bring additional revenue to the town.
“What’s the downside to this?” Terndrup asked. “There’s no guarantees in this.”
Pearson said the town hasn’t proposed a revenue plan yet, but he offered an option of the town financing the full amount of the project over five years.
The installation of new water meters will not necessarily ease regular monthly bills around town, but Mayor Richard Orndorff Jr. has said that being able to bill by the gallon or 100 gallons instead of the town’s current practice of rounding down to the nearest 1,000 gallons will prevent spiking every few months when households accrue enough extra usage to reach into the next 1,000 gallons.
Addressing concerns about the efficiency of the new water meters causing bills to go up, Orndorff said any increase would be minimal — such as a couple of dollars a month.
“We are leading by fear by telling people, ‘Your rates are going up,’” Orndorff said.
He also dispelled rumors that town staff or public officials are benefiting when people pay higher water bills.
“My pocket is not padded by water rates,” he said.
Recognizing that the town charges some of the highest rates in Virginia, Orndorff asked the council to consider Berryville’s latest water rate study through Pennoni Associates before deciding if Strasburg will pay for its own study.
Pearson said the town asked for preliminary bids on a water rate study, but only one consulting firm has responded, offering a bid of $14,000. He said he’s hoping for a better rate and would consider financing the study out of the water meter project.
Doing a water rate study will allow the council to see if the rates are fair and representative of the town’s budget, he said.
In the past, he said, “We’ve adjusted our rates to balance our budget.”
Sewer rates have also been a concern since the town ties its sewer rates to how much it reads on the water meters.
“We’re one of the few localities in the state that actually has higher water rates than sewer rates,” Pearson said. “Treating wastewater is normally a more expensive process than treating water to be drinkable and potable.”
Disputing the benefit of viewing Berryville’s rate study, Councilwoman Jocelyn Vena pointed out that Berryville also has some of the highest rates around.
In talking with Mayor Patricia Dickinson, she said she learned Berryville’s water system is by far one of the most expensive in the area.
Councilwoman Kim Bishop said that Strasburg’s current system is so expensive because of the new water treatment plant upgrade.
Completed in 2013, the water treatment plant is new compared to those in other localities, Pearson said.
“Is the study kind of putting the cart before the horse?” Councilman Ken Cherrix asked, wondering if replacing meters before rewriting the town’s billing policy will require replacement of the system again after a few years.
Orndorff said that a study will be needed for the town to switch to a 100-gallon billing system, regardless of whether the town replaces the water meters.
When Terndrup asked about charging a flat rate for all residents regardless of their sewer rates, as a way of preventing spiking when more water is used, Pearson and Orndorff debunked the idea, pointing out that family size plays a huge role in how much a household uses the sewer system.
Strasburg has spent $30 million to upgrade its sewer system and $25 million for the new water plant and public works building, Terndrup said.
“That’s $55 million. That’s why your rates are so freaking high,” he said.
Arguing that $25 million was approved more than 15 years ago to build up the industrial park and bring jobs to town, he wondered how many jobs and how much revenue Strasburg would have now if the money had been used to focus more attention on jobs.
“I mean, how much we spend on water is just staggering,” he said, expressing concern that the new meter system would be “another diversion into more of the same.”
Cherrix agreed, fearing that people might leave Strasburg over the cost of water.
“When your water bill is now half of your mortgage,” he said, “there’s no point in even owning the house anymore.”
But Bishop feared prioritizing anything else over water quality.
Without water and sewer, there is no town, she said. In support of paying for a study, she said it’s a good idea “to get it right and get it done.”
The water meter discussion will continue at 7 p.m. at Monday’s Infrastructure Committee meeting. The water rate study discussion will continue at the 7 p.m. Dec. 2 work session.
Attending the work session were Orndorff, Terndrup, and council members Bishop, Cherrix, John Massoud, Taralyn Nicholson, Barbara Plitt and Jocelyn Vena. Councilwoman Emily Reynolds was absent.