published Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Catoosa Utility board reverses rate change

by Beverly Carroll
Audio clip

Charles Weiss

RINGGOLD, Ga. — Profuse apologies and a unanimous vote to rescind a recent rate increase did not quiet many of the 50 or so customers attending a Catoosa Utility District meeting Tuesday.

“I want to apologize to the consumers of Catoosa Utility District Authority for the way we handled this,” said board Chairman Jerry Lee. “We need money; we don’t have a choice; we’ve got to have extra money.”

A furor had been building since the utility district issued February bills with a rate restructuring that pushed up customers’ bills. Most were unaware a rate increase even had been considered.

Ray Honeycutt asked Mr. Lee where he went to school, and suggested teachers forgot to teach him math.

“I’m not trying to be smart,” Mr. Honeycutt said. “I’m just saying I want more information from you.”

Mr. Lee said the utility needs the money for operating costs.

“We needed anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 extra a month,” Mr. Lee said.

He said the board determined how much money the increase would generate instead of figuring the percentage of the increase. Bills were up by 10 percent to 60 percent, depending upon the amount of water used.

The February bills were figured with a flat $9 monthly fee, plus $2.73 per 1,000 gallons for the first 2,000 gallons.

Previously, the bill had been $9 for the first 2,000 gallons, and $2.73 the next 1,000 gallons.

Customers like Mr. Honeycutt wanted to know the percentage of the fee increase and how the board selected the new rate schedule.

“The percentage is important,” Karl LaRoche said. “I don’t care if it’s $2 or $1,000, I don’t want to pay it.”

Mr. Lee said the utility has not raised rates in a decade.

He said lost commercial clients, stalled residential growth, last year’s drought, rising materials costs and state-mandated improvements combined for a loss of more than $157,000 in 2008 for the utility.

In addition, he said the district needs $12 million to $14 million in replacement waterlines in the next few years. Also, engineers project in 20 years the utility will need to pump 8 million to 10 million gallons a day from Yates Spring. It now provides 3 million to 5 million gallons a day.

Tempers continued to flare, even after the board repealed the rate increase. One customer in the audience suggested the board cut its own pay and increase insurance contributions.

Mr. Lee said, at another meeting, “I’d be willing to consider that.”

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