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Seven speak out against rate increase

ELKINS — Seven residents spoke in protest against a proposed sewer rate increase during a public hearing before Thursday’s Elkins City Council meeting.

Council approved on first reading Oct. 17 a proposed 21.5% increase in the rates for sewage and sewage disposal services. The second and final vote was scheduled for Thursday’s City Council meeting, but city officials pushed the second vote on the proposed increase back for two weeks, until the Nov. 7 council meeting.

The planned public hearing was held Thursday, however, with all seven speakers expressing their displeasure with the proposed rate hike.

Mandy Weirich spoke on behalf of her mother, Linda Young, who lives on Shelton Lane. Weirich said her mother cannot afford to pay the rate increase each month.

“The infrastructure of this city should not be built on the backs of the poor and the elderly,” Weirich said during the public hearing.

She said it was ironic that there are now signs in City Hall saying “there are no more extended payment plans for people who are struggling to pay their (utility) bills.”

Mike Elza of South Kerens Avenue asked if “that is the natural course of business” for city officials to wait to release information about the proposed rate increase until the day before the first vote. “We like transparency … Let’s be transparent,” he said.

“I’d like to ask questions, but you won’t answer questions in public comment,” Elza said to the council members. “When do I get answers?”

Patrick Varchetto of Silvester Drive pointed out the rate hike will result in a $6.66 per month increase to the average residential user.

“666 is a very interesting number,” Varchetto said, adding that he believes the city should use revenue from the year-old 1 percent sales tax to pay for the Phase II Sewer Project, rather than raise people’s utility bills.

Bonnie Webb of Lavalette Avenue suggested that the city use revenue from traffic citations to pay for Phase II, instead of raising the sewer rate.

The public hearing was continued until 7 p.m. Nov. 21, because of the “lack of adequate public notice,” in order to allow “for a second and final opportunity for public comments prior to the final reading of the ordinance,” according to a city officials’ document.

After the public hearing, council voted during the city council meeting to amend some of the language in the proposed rate increase ordinance. Among the amendments was changing the resale rate, based on metered water sold, under Schedule No. 3 from $4.05 per gallon in the original proposed ordinance to $3.67 per gallon, and the metered rate under Schedule No. 4 from $4.09 per gallon in the original proposed ordinance to $3.71 per gallon. Schedule No. 3 is available to the Midland Public Service District, while Schedule No. 4 is available to the Leadsville Public Service District.

Because of the amendments to the proposed ordinance, the second and final vote was pushed back to the next council meeting, set for Nov. 21.

The project cost for Phase II is estimated to be $4.3 million, to be funded through a loan from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The loan would be for a term of 20 years, at an interest rate of 3%.

The purpose of the Sewer/Stormwater Project, as the city refers to the effort, is the segregation of the sanitary sewer from the storm sewer to meet a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consent decree in relation to Elkins’ inability to adhere to Clean Water Act regulations.

Separating the two systems will enhance the sewer facility’s capacity. During heavy rains in the past, the sewer has overflowed and spilled over into the Tygart River.

The consent decree was ordered in 2012 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, with the state and the U.S. government as the plaintiffs and the city of Elkins as the defendant. The consent decree was the result of a negotiation between the parties involved.

Phase 1 of the project, which began in 2015, focused on Barron Avenue, Kerens Avenue, College Street and Wilson Street.

Phase 2 will affect Lavalette Avenue and Elm Street.