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Pasquotank approves water fee hike

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Pasquotank County commissioners voted Monday to raise customer water fees, despite some public opposition to them when they were first proposed last fall.

In a 6-0 vote, commissioners voted to raise the water deposit for renters from $60 to $100, the cutoff fee from $25 to $40, and the fee to start service from $10 to $20. Commissioners did not change the rate for water use.

Commissioners took the vote at their finance committee meeting Monday afternoon. Absent was Commissioner Barry Overman.

The new fees will go into effect March 1, County Manager Sparty Hammett said Tuesday.

Hammett and Water Superintendent David Smithson first proposed raising the fees in September. Commissioners then voted for the fee increases, only to reverse course a few weeks later after Commissioner Charles Jordan asked to delay them, citing some citizen complaints about the increases.

Commissioners voted to send the fee increases back to the board’s water committee, which met about the issue on Monday and then advanced it to the finance committee.

Smithson said the fees were needed for several reasons. He said the county often sees renters who run up water bills and then move before paying them. The county cuts off water service after two months of non-payment, he noted. Increasing the deposit better covers those losses. Renters who pay their bills and then move get their deposits back, he added.

Addressing the cutoff fee increase, Smithson told commissioners that cutting off and restoring delinquent customers' water service takes a lot of staff time. For some customers, county workers are constantly having to go out and cut off and then turn back on their water, he said.

After the meeting, Smithson also estimated the county has about 200 cutoffs a month. While that seems like a large number, it’s fewer than 3 percent of total customers, he said.

If cutoffs remain at about 2,400 a year, the county would raise another $36,000 from the fee increase, he said. However, he said he'd rather customers simply paid their bills on time, and that the increased fee is also meant as a “deterrent” to non-payment.

As for the service fee for starting service, he said raising it would better cover the staff time needed to set up water service. It would generate $3,000 to $5,000 a year, he estimated.

In another water-related matter, commissioners also supported Smithson's request to seek bids on “variable frequency drives” for the county's four wells supplying the reverse osmosis water treatment plant. Those drives are intended to reduce water loss and simplify plant operations, according to Smithson.

Smithson explained the RO water plant requires pumping water at high pressure, but also requires alternating between wells. After switching between wells, the plant can't immediately handle the pumps' maximum pressure, so the county has to discharge some water before it's treated.

The variable frequency drive will better control the pressure, he continued, limiting water loss and making the plant safer to operate. Right now, workers have to closely watch the pressure while switching wells to ensure costly machinery isn't damaged, he said.

The drives may cost as much as $500,000, based on engineering estimates, Smithson said. The project has not gone out for bids or been awarded to anyone yet, he noted. Despite the cost, he reiterated the project would be worthwhile to reduce water loss and improve operations.

Smithson also said the project would not require a water rate increase, nor would customers notice any disruption to water service during the drives' installation.

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