RWR making its pitch for a rate increase

CONYERS -- Rockdale Water Resources and the Water and Sewerage Authority are taking the case for a rate increase to the people through a series of public meetings designed to give an overview of the system and outline what is needed to maintain and improve services.

Last Thursday, in the seventh such presentation, RWR officials told a handful of citizens at the J.P Carr Center that the system faces a number of challenges that will have to be addressed in order to maintain a reliable and efficient water and sewage treatment system. To do that, more revenue will be needed for such projects as replacing aging infrastructure; replacing three package treatment plants on the south side of the county with a new sewage treatment plant as required by the state Environmental Protection Division; and dredging sand from Randy Poynter Lake, the county's drinking water reservoir.

Al Ford, general manager for customer service and business affairs for RWR, said the system operates on an annual budget allocation of about $25 million. Of that total, the largest portion -- more than $9 million -- goes to pay debt service on the system's bond debt.

Chip Hatcher, finance chair for the Rockdale Water and Sewerage Authority, said much of the debt was incurred to build the system's treatment facilities.

Ford said a study by Raftelis Financial Consultants determined that the system will need to generate more revenue from rates in order to cover future debt service and maintain the system.

RWR has had one rate increase in the past 10 years.

While RWR has taken steps to cut costs and operate more efficiently, Teresa Jacobs, customer service manager with RWR, said those measures go only so far. Without more revenue from rates, she said, RWR will not be able to maintain its infrastructure, from the water treatment plant that came online in 2002 to replacing 700 horsepower pumps at $35,000 each.

"This is our water supply, and it has to stay up and running no matter what the cost is," she said.

More funding will also be needed to replace the three package plants that EPD has said must close. Jacobs estimated the cost of a new sewage treatment plant at $22 to $30 million.

For 2013 RWR is proposing a 5.8 percent increase in water rates for an average customer using 6,000 gallons per month; an increase of 9.5 percent is proposed for sewer rates, for a combined rate increase of 7.8 percent. That average customer's total bill would be $78.55 per month, compared to the current $72.88 per month. In 2014 water rates for the same customer would increase 2.8 percent and sewer rates 9.9 percent. For 2015, rates would remain flat for water and increase 10.3 percent for sewer.

In addition, a new tier of water usage would be added, creating four tiers of consumption: zero to 3,000 gallons; 3,000 to 7,000 gallons; 7,000 to 12,000 gallons; and more than 12,000 gallons.

RWR Director Dwight Wicks said a common question from customers is why water rates in Rockdale are greater than in some other neighboring counties. Wicks explained that the "expense is proportional to the number of customers that you have to share the expense and the expense itself."

Because RWR's customer base is smaller than in some other counties there are fewer to share the cost. The amount of debt on the system is also a factor, he said.

In addition, Wicks explained that population density plays a role in the cost of installing water and sewer lines. The fewer customers on those lines, the greater the cost per customer will be.