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3:16 AM Sun, Dec. 16th

GV residents plead over rate hikes

Residents of the Golden Valley Improvement District No. 1 had plenty of questions for the Board of Supervisors Friday. The Board was considering raising water rates and service fees, but because of the number of questions raised by the public, the Board decided to continue discussion at its next meeting.

The County Public Works Department is asking for a 5 percent increase in rates and fees. Last month, Improvement District Supervisor Zelda Wright said the district had not seen a rate increase since 1999. The increase would cover the higher costs of copper for the meters.

The department also planned to create a new billing plan for customers with good credit.

Golden Valley resident Robert Holsinger, representing Golden Paradise Land Owners, Inc., said he was opposed to the increase in rates. The area has seen an amazing inflation increase over the last few years, he said. And the Board's proposed rate increase is substantial. "No. 1 Improvement District has always been higher than anywhere else, as far as I know, in the county," Holsinger said.

Valley Pioneer Water Company raised its rates recently as well, he said, but they are still below the rate proposed by GVID No. 1.

Holsinger said he realized there was a problem with arsenic in the water; Valley Pioneer has the same problem. And while the county had to purchase a $1 million treatment plant because of it, this is still a substantial increase, he said.

He asked the Board to reconsider the request.

Fixed incomes

Resident Susan Bayer spoke out in defense of residents living on a fixed income.

"How many people here can live on $700 a month to buy gas, to buy food, medicine and try to make a house payment, and then still to come up with water? It does not add up," she said.

If the Board increases the rates, anyone with a high water bill will probably purchase a water tank and go to Valley Pioneer and pay less there, she said.

She too understood the need for the treatment plant, but what would happen when the next disaster came along, she asked. Would the county increase the rates again?

She asked the Board to consider low- and fixed-income residents who may not be able to afford an increase.

Budget control

Donna Crouse, a Realtor and representative of the Western States Constitutional Alliance, which owns property in the district, asked about assessments in the district.

"There are areas and property owners in this district who have paid their assessments in full yet still do not have lines, meters or anything to assessed water. They are currently being reassessed. Until we do have something more concrete to answer to these property owners as to where their money is going to, how it is going to affect their water use and the future availability? We need to really address this," she said. "The budget information that the residents have asked (does) not answer the questions they are asking. ... you cannot continue to just continue to increase rates on people without giving them a justifiable cause."

Resident Ronald Wayne Poster said he's lived in the area for more than 16 years. He was charged around $6,000 for an assessment in order to get water to his property. Now he's being charged another $1,000 to $2,000 for a meter.

"To me that's outrageous," he said. "That's like putting a gun to my back and pushing me up against a wall."

He asked why there had to be a hook-up fee if he was already assessed for the connection.

"I understand your frustration," Board Chairman Pete Byers said. "But it costs a lot of money to run a water company."

He said there are a lot of other water companies that have not raised their rates and are not coming to the county asking for help because they're broke.

An explanation

County Public Works Director Mike Hendrix attempted to answer some of the residents' questions. He reminded the Board and the residents that a petition of the people started the district. The assessments that residents were speaking of were to pay for the infrastructure; this agenda item is about water rates and fee increases, not about the infrastructure, he said. The district has seen increases in fuel costs, salaries, electricity, brass and copper for the meters and other necessities, he said.

"What it looked like from a budget standpoint is if we increased our fees across the board by 5 percent and we tried to curtail costs, that we would pretty much break even," he said.

Hendrix said the district has two positions open and a water systems manager retiring. He plans to leave the two positions empty and replace the water systems manager with a lower-paid worker.

As for the high assessment rates, Hendrix said that the new assessments were for phase 5 of the district, which the department expected to be very costly.

Residents could stop the project if they could get 51 percent of the people in the area to sign a petition opposing it.

A rate comparison

As to statements that GVID is the highest-priced water company in the area, Hendrix said he wasn't sure. He focused primarily on what GVID was doing, not what anyone else was doing.

"As you probably know, operating an improvement district we don't make a profit. We operate at expense," he said. "So when we come in and ask for an increase, it's to meet our expenses."

He gave a quick comparison of rates between GVID, SoHi and Valley Pioneer water companies. GVID currently charges a minimum of $15 a month up to 3,500 gallons. If the changes were implemented, customers could expect a minimum of $15 a month for up to 3,279 gallons. Generally, most customers use less than 3,000 gallons, he said.

Valley Pioneer and SoHi water companies both charge a monthly user fee. Valley Pioneer charges $18 a month and SoHi about $20 a month, he said. For 5,000 gallons, GVID would charge about $22.80 a month with the new rates; Valley Pioneer would charge $31; and SoHi would charge $30 a month.

While GVID per gallon rates are higher, the fee structure actually makes the per-customer average charge lower than Valley Pioneer or SoHi, Hendrix said.

Going public

As to GVID's budget, it was discussed during Board meetings in February, July and August of this year, Hendrix said. The department asked at that time for a 5 percent across-the-board rate increase, which the Board approved.

Supervisor Tom Sockwell made a motion to delay action on the agenda item to allow residents to get more information.

"I understand that we are going to have to charge in order to keep the water system repaired and keep it running, but I want to make sure the people understand that we are not in this to make a profit," he said.

Byers agreed to second the motion if the Board would agree to publish the district's budget in the newspaper.

County Finance Manager John Timko pointed out that as part of the county budget process, the county is required to publish the budget twice in the newspaper.

"I agree and I know that," Byers said, "but I think in this case we're getting accused of hiding stuff and I would like to have it published."

The Board approved to delay any action on the item until its next meeting by a two to one vote, with Supervisor Buster Johnson voting against the motion.