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GRAVETTE -- A short public forum was held preceding the Feb. 28 Gravette City Council meeting to discuss the city's proposed water and sewer rate increases. Several citizens attended and spoke regarding the issue.

Carl Rabey, city finance director, gave a brief summary of reasons for the increase and told how the amount was determined. He explained that the city has been absorbing the increased costs from its supplier, the Benton-Washington Regional Public Water Authority, and cannot continue doing that. He countered complaints that Gravette's rates were already higher than neighboring towns by saying that Decatur and Gentry have industries within their city limits which provide a tax base that helps them keep rates lower.

Rabey said the rate increase is necessary to help find a way to pay bills and increase the city's reserve fund to expand existing infrastructure. He explained that that the cost for the city's last round of meter replacements was nearly $450,000 and those costs are still increasing. He said the proposed increase of 29 cents on water rates and 29 cents on sewer rates per 1,000 gallons of usage will amount to an increase of only 15 cents a day on the average customer's bill. He reported the last rate increase was in 2007.

Todd Shannon was present and asked what amount goes into the reserve fund each month. Rabey answered that the amount varies each month.

Tim Craig, a member of the Water West Board, attended and said, when the rural water system was being developed, participants were promised they would have a city rate and an agricultural rate. The city has a residential rate and a volume rate, he said, but no agricultural rate, so many of the chicken farmers who signed up cannot afford to hook on. Many farmers would sign up for rural water if prices were reasonable, he said.

Corey Reardon, the water department supervisor, said the rural water contract was not enforceable and explained that many of the original rural customers who expressed interest did not sign on. Some had already signed contracts, and about half of those still did not participate.

Dwayne Craig, Tim's brother, reported that he had given Water West over a mile and a half of free right of way but was told it would cost $1,300 to hook on to the system even though his meter was right beside the house. Changes have been made in the fee structure and the actual cost is now $75 to hook up if a meter is already in place.

Dale Ayres asked if the water department has ever lost money and was told revenue was down a couple of years. He also asked about water loss from leaks, and Reardon reported the city currently experiences a water loss underground of 15 to 20 percent. Ayres asked that council members "think everything through" before voting to approve the increases.

Council member Ron Theis reported that he had done research on area water rates when the rate increase was proposed and Gravette's rates were lower than others. He pointed out that if the city doesn't keep water rates up, it will be necessary to secure a loan to improve infrastructure and then the government would set the rates at what it thinks they should be. He said that the increased rates will still cover only about half of meter replacement costs.

Jack Hunter said a chart that was displayed comparing area water rates was very misleading because it was "not comparing apples to apples" since Gravette's bill includes water, sewer and trash services. He said Gravette's rates were 23 percent higher than surrounding cities and questioned why the city water department was losing money. Mayor Maddox pointed out that customers in none of these cities pay only a water bill but must also provide funds for the other services.

Matt Neustel presented information on Centerton's water rates, but he did not provide any figures for sewer and trash services. Neustel asked what was being done to make the water system more efficient, and Reardon replied that department employees are always seeking to identify and eliminate leaks.

Donna Howerton asked why the city is concentrating only on increasing water and sewer rates and suggested increases in other areas such as late fees. Council member Theis pointed out that the council has already increased some fees and that this increase would amount to only 6/10 of one percent for each year since the last rate increase.

Mayor Kurt Maddox concluded the meeting by remarking that city employees are always looking for grants but grants are difficult to obtain for existing infrastructure. Grants for new construction are more readily available, he said.

In the council meeting which followed, council members unanimously approved the first reading of the ordinances which would raise water and sewer rates. A second reading of the ordinances will be held at the March 14 committee of the whole meeting.

General News on 03/13/2019

Print Headline: Public forum held to discuss rate increases for water, sewer

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