By Tina Alvey
City council took another step Monday evening toward construction of a $28 million regional wastewater treatment plant.
Ronceverte Council members approved the second and final reading of an ordinance establishing a new rate structure for the agency that provides sewer service for Lewisburg and Fairlea, along with significantly higher rates down the line for all customers.
According to Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester, the “pass-through” costs to Public Service District (PSD) No. 1 — due to the change in the way volume of usage will be measured under the newly approved regulations — amounts to an estimated 19 percent increase.
That increase is expected to be passed along to PSD No. 1’s customers, comprising virtually all of the residences and businesses in the Lewisburg/Fairlea area.
Manchester pointed out that this Phase I increase will affect only PSD No. 1’s customers and not people living or operating businesses in the city of Ronceverte. The PSD serves approximately 2,600 customers, and Ronceverte directly serves the treatment plant’s remaining 800 customers.
While the resale rate Ronceverte charges PSD No. 1 will remain $2.52 per 1,000 gallons during Phase I, the city will begin basing that charge on “metered sewage flow” rather than the current standard of “metered water usage.” According to city administrator Reba Mohler, the change will result in the charge more accurately reflecting the amount of sewage the plant is handling.
A telephone message left for managers at PSD No. 1 by The Register-Herald seeking further information on the anticipated impact of the rate hike on the district’s customers was not returned Tuesday. However, PSD attorney Steve Hunter said in October, when an earlier version of the ordinance was under consideration, that he expected to file a protest of the rates with the state Public Service Commission (PSC) once the measure was adopted by the city.
Phase 1 of Ronceverte’s new ordinance will go into effect in 45 days, barring action by the PSC, which Hunter said “very seldom intervenes” in municipal rate cases beyond ensuring “costs are reasonable.”
Phase II — which will include rate increases averaging 80 percent for all customers — will not kick in until the new treatment plant is “substantially complete.” The city’s engineering firm estimates that point will be reached some time in 2016.
Speaking during Monday evening’s public hearing on the sewer rate ordinance, Manchester said he realizes Ronceverte is “trying to figure out how to move forward,” but asked officials to employ “extreme diligence” in watching over the plant construction project in order to control costs as much as possible.
Ronceverte Mayor David Smith assured Manchester that project oversight will be thorough.
The only other member of the public who spoke during the pre-vote hearing was Ronceverte native Loretta Young, who is in the process of resettling in the city after a career-related absence of several years.
Young said she is concerned about problems with Ronceverte’s aging sewer and water lines, having noticed there are “hairline openings” in the pipes that result in the lines leaking and freezing. She said those issues that affect city residents personally don’t appear to be on council’s agenda.
“I don’t see how (a sewer rate increase) is fair ... without residents seeing a benefit,” Young said.
The daughter of a former Ronceverte mayor, Young added that, while she realized the suggestion would be unpopular, she hoped city council would consider cooperating with Lewisburg to solve the issues she had raised.
Young said the state also might be able to offer help in finding solutions to the city’s problems.
Noting she had already spoken with senators who represent Greenbrier County in the state Legislature, Young reported, “They’re willing to work with Ronceverte.”
Smith thanked Young for her input.
In addition to approving the rate hike, council voted to OK new sewer use regulations.
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