After two hours of presentations and heartfelt public comment, the Rappahannock County Water & Sewer Authority (RCWSA) voted to raise wastewater treatment rates for its 200-plus customers in the village of Sperryville by 18 percent, effective July 1.
As chairman Rick Lessard explained Thursday night (June 12), the rate increase — the second 18-percent increase in two years — would raise Sperryville residents’ monthly bills by $6 (from $34 to $40). Plans were in place, Lessard continued, to make any future increase more manageable — in the three- to five-percent range.
Usage rates had also been increased, Lessard said, for the town of Washington and Rappahannock County Public Schools, both of which the Sperryville wastewater plant services. Washington’s rates rose by 18 percent for fiscal year 2015, while RCPS’ rates rose 20 percent.
Lessard added that the authority operates “on a shoestring budget due to past management,” and that the rate increases were an effort to increase the authority’s revenue so it could start replacing the 30-year-old plant over the years, rather than all at once “so we don’t get hit with that jolt.”
A $6 monthly increase would only generate about $20,000, Lessard said.
Originally opened in 1985, Lessard said the plant is nearing the end of its expected lifespan and will need to be replaced at some point. While it was originally built for $1.1 million, Lessard said he and the authority members doubted it would cost so little today.
Some things have already started going wrong, Lessard said, as the equalization tank crumpled and failed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — necessitating a repair by local welder Rick Nawrocki, which he said saved the authority from having to replace the $200,000 tank.
“We need money in the bank in the event of a catastrophic problem,” Lessard said. Last year’s rate increase — the first in 15 years — was the first step toward this. Most of the authority’s $148,000 operating budget comes from its Sperryville customers ($126,000); $26,000 comes from the town, while the remaining $32,000 comes from RCPS.
Nonetheless, several of the 12 people gathered in the courthouse disputed the necessity of the rate increases and offered some alternatives for the authority to consider. Ruth Kiger, a former member of the authority board, spoke first and strongly urged the authority not to raise the rates.
“You’ve done some wonderful work,” Kiger said, “but the bottom line is . . . Sperryville was a very low-income area, and I don’t think that’s increased very much . . . It’s wrong in every way, shape and form . . . I would ask you to consider the hardship this will place on the majority of people in this town.”
Kiger also said she’d talked to many Sperryville residents — most of whom declined to come to the meeting because they didn’t think it would make a difference. Kiger said she thinks Sperryville is often viewed as “an ugly stepsister” by the rest of Rappahannock, and suggested the county should take over operation of the plant.
“It seems to me the county could step up to the plate here.”
Several other Sperryville suggested the board could look at other cost-savings measures. Sherri Fickel, co-owner of Hopkins Ordinary B&B, agreed that it made sense for Sperryville residents to shoulder some of the plant’s costs but questioned how much the town and school systems would have to pay someone else for the plant’s services.
Fickel also wondered how closely the authority had looked at its budget and expenses, and suggested a public information campaign detailing what people should keep from washing down their drains could help defer future maintenance costs.
Thornton River Grille’s Andy Thompson said he was in favor of “whatever it takes to keep the plant up and running,” as his restaurant is completely dependent on it. He did, however, ask the authority to consider how the raise would impact its customers, especially those on a tight budget.
The four attending authority members then responded to most of the audience’s questions, soliciting their help in generating ideas or grants to help fund the plant.
“I don’t want to have to pay more to flush my toilet either,” agreed authority member Andrew Haley, of Haley Fine Arts. “But we’re being wildly optimistic about the plant’s remaining life . . . I’ve been out there, I’ve seen the rust . . . [and] I’m all for a rate increase as a system user.”
County attorney Peter Luke addressed several audience questions, including the matter of the plant’s ownership. Luke asserted that the authority owned it. “And if you want to fill this courthouse, propose that the county take over the facility,” Luke said with a laugh. “I can tell you, from a political standpoint, that’s just not going to happen.”
Lessard spoke last, acknowledging the authority could do certain things better and thanked the public for attending and for the comments. “We’re a volunteer board,” Lessard added, “and anything the community could do for us would be helpful. We’re not unsympathetic, and we’re not just here to push a rate increase.”
The authority then unanimously passed the rate increase, 4-0. (Member Keir Whitson was absent.)