published Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Catoosa County: Water board mulls repeal of fee increase

by Beverly Carroll

After a hasty called meeting Wednesday evening, Catoosa Utility District commissioners decided to defer a decision to undo a rate change they passed last month until a regular board meeting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“I’m not ready right now,” board member David Gaddis said of fellow board member Alvin Worley’s proposal to change the rate. “I need some time to study this and go over the figures.”

Residents were caught by surprise after board members voted to change the fee structure from a $9 fee that includes 2,000 gallons of water to a payment plan that charged a flat $9 fee and then $2.73 per 1,000 gallons of water used. Wednesday’s meeting was called in response to the hundreds of calls to the office after bills went out to the district’s 18,006 customers, officials said.

Mr. Worley said he would change his vote to back a proposal that called for a $9 flat rate and a fee of $1.25 per 1,000 gallons for first 2,000 gallons and $2.73 for the third 1,000 gallons.

Several residents attended Wednesday’s meeting, and many said they were upset about the way the increase was handled. Tim Tate said the board failed to communicate the change and it was not clear on the water bill how or why the rates had changed.

Board chairman Jerry Lee and other members agreed they handled communication poorly.

“We made a mistake, and we admit it,” Mr. Lee said. “I knew we were losing money, but after I saw the figures I felt that it was urgent that we do something.”

The utility lost $157,943 in 2008, and in the last three months made only $29,000.

“We made $29,000 last month, $8,000 the month before that and lost $8,00 the month before that,” Tony Bowman said.

“In the last 10 years, we have lived on growth,” Mr. Gaddis said. “In 1998 we had 14,835 customers, and in 2008 we had 18,006. We haven’t had much growth since. And it costs $12 per billing to operate. The $9 we charge doesn’t cover that.”

The district’s water is supplied by a spring, but in the dry months the utility buys water from East Tennessee Water Utility and Tennessee American Water, board members said. The board also is paying off a $6 million bond at $98,000 a month.

Several residents said they supported Mr. Worley’s proposal. Virginia Scott said some seniors living on fixed incomes would struggle with an increase, which is projected to be as much as nearly $6 per bill.

Mr. Tate and a couple of other residents said they understand the need for the increase. Mr. Tate suggested creating a disconnect policy to help low-income residents.

The board will hold another public meeting Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the utility office on Battlefield Parkway.

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