Hurt council looks for ways to help citizens with water costs

The Town of Hurt’s public works committee met July 9 to discuss a number of topics ranging from the fairest way to charge for water to repairing the aging water distribution system to the town’s deteriorated appearance and its negative effects on both citizens and businesses.

For months, councilmembers and staff have been deliberating over how best to balance the need to generate revenue for operating, maintaining, and upgrading the infrastructure, plus putting away some money for future capital improvements, with the need to look out for the welfare of its citizens – especially those with low incomes.  It has been mentioned a couple of times that not everyone on a fixed income is also on a low income, and that it is difficult to estimate what percentage of the town’s population would fall into each category.

A concerned citizen came to the meeting to talk about an Excel spreadsheet he has prepared to help council more easily see what they could charge for town water that would be fair to all yet still produce the needed revenue to balance the budget and save money to address problems that will eventually hit the town.

Hurt is plagued with water lines 35 to 40 years old that have already sprung numerous leaks, more of which are likely to fail at any time now, along with valves, meters, and other devices. 

Being proactive in addressing the situation is something that is very important to Council, Mayor Gary Poindexter, and Public Works Coordinator Ed Hodges.

All members of council were invited to meet with the concerned citizen, who prefers his name not be published, to examine the spreadsheet and gain additional information that may help them make more informed decisions. 

Council is aware that some are struggling to a point of cutting back on buying medicine and/or other personal needs in order to pay water bills.  These users are generally conservative, with most falling into the lowest bracket of the water usage range.

A good deal of concern has been expressed over heavy users not paying a fair share, thus placing most of the burden on low-usage customers.  This is a situation that council, mayor, and staff have all indicated they would like to alleviate, or at least greatly improve.

Hodges suggested that if Hurt does go to a flat fee charge based on volume then it could use a staggered scale based on meter size, which would be more equitable.  Police Officer Jason Lovelace pointed out that keeping rates in a reasonable range is a way to promote growth in the real estate market.  It was also discussed that any money from water billing that is put back for emergencies be earmarked for use toward water related problems only.

How to fairly distribute the cost of water will be an ongoing topic as the town decides the fairest way to charge for water.  It buys its water from Altavista then resells to Hurt consumers.  In earlier conversations, Poindexter has already noted that Hurt faces an 8% increase in the rate it will pay Altavista for each the next two years, followed by 10% each for two more years beyond that, and that Hurt cannot absorb those increases plus do the required work on its own system unless the cost is passed along to all customers. 

He has also pointed out that the town’s water and wastewater systems are financed by an enterprise fund, meaning that they are to operate as a business model and be self-supporting by their own revenue rather than subsidized by the town’s general fund, which is financed by tax money and covers essentially all other functions of and services provided by the town.

During follow-up remarks to the Journal on Monday, Mayor Poindexter added that “while the public works committee did have considerable discussion over this very important topic, we are still probably looking at several weeks before the full council is ready to make a final decision.  It is important to understand that we are not trying to drag the process out unnecessarily, but rather, we need to exercise due diligence.  Before making substantial changes to the design of the rate structure, we first need to run the what-if scenarios in our minds and on paper, then answer the questions that arise as best we can.

For more on this story, see this week's Altavista Journal.