This story was updated March 28 at 2:38 p.m. and 11:58 p.m. with additional information.

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Shannon Whitfield

Walker County, Ga., residents will see their water and sewer bills go up as of May 1 to pay for the cost of upgrading the county's water and sewer system.

The board of directors of the Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority voted to authorize the new rates.

The average residence uses about 5,000 gallons of water per month, with an average bill of about $50. That customer's water rate will go up about $7.50, said Shannon Whitfield, the county's sole commissioner who also heads the authority. If they are also connected to the sewer service, that part of the bill also will rise by about $7.50, he said.

The county has about 10,000 water customers and more than 3,500 sewer customers, Whitfield said.

Commercial rates also will go up, he said, with the base rate increasing from the current $13 to $17.

Whitfield said the funds are needed to replace aging pipes and other infrastructure.

"Continuing to ignore our aging infrastructure would be a disservice to our community and harmful to our public safety," he said in a statement Tuesday. Whitfield blamed his predecessor, Bebe Heiskell, for failing to make needed repairs to the system.

"In their efforts to avoid a rate increase, the previous board regularly used profits from water sales to cover losses on the sewer side. [The authority] stands to lose $1.3 million this budget year, if we don't take action," Whitfield said. "This practice left the prior administration without the funds necessary to properly maintain and upgrade our water system. This neglect has led to more frequent water main breaks and a steady flow of service disruptions for our customers. No one should have to worry about whether they will have water to make coffee, take a shower or save their home from a fire."

Starting this summer, the water and sewage authority will begin replacing the current two-inch galvanized pipes with six-inch high-pressure poly- plastic pipe. Workers will also add more valves, so fewer customers will be affected when a leak occurs, Whitfield said.

The authority also plans to add more fire hydrants, which could lower residential home insurance bills, he said. The current two-inch pipes don't provide sufficient water pressure for a fire hydrant, Whitfield said.

The total cost of the upgrade, which will take several years, is still not known pending engineering work, he said.

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