Leader Blues

Friday, April 17, 2009

TOP STORY >> Water rates will go up 56 percent

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville City Council by an 8-1 vote Thursday night approved a 56 percent hike in the city water rates, which will raise the average monthly bill from $25.12 to $39.15 by 2012.

The rate hike goes into effect immediately — 13 percent this year, another 13 percent in 2010, 13 percent again in 2011 and 8 percent in 2012.

The rate increase applies to residential, commercial and wholesale customers of Jacksonville Water Department and includes three years’ worth of increases announced by Central Arkansas Water.

That 13 percent, or $3.62 monthly increase, makes Jacksonville the third most expensive place to get water in the area. Only Cabot and north Pulaski County are higher.

Water department manager Mike Simpson, along with two engineers, spent about 45 minutes explaining why the increase was needed, but Alderman Terry Sansing, the lone dissenting vote, didn’t buy it.

“This is a very large wish list,” Sansing said. “Is it 100 percent necessary? What can be trimmed? I’m sure it can be tweaked.

You are talking a few dollars here and a few dollars there, like it’s nothing, but people are going to feel it,” he said.

The few dollars that Simpson and engineers Shawn Koorn and Kirby Rowland were talking about were more than $38 million, most of which would be spent in the next four to five years.

Alderman Marshall Smith said, “None of us want this increase during these economic times, but it’s something we need to pass.”

According to Rowland, Jacksonville currently gets its water from nine wells, of which one is about dry, and from Central Arkansas Water. The city gets about 3 million gallons of water daily from its wells and the rest from CAW. Rowland expects all the city wells to become unusable within 10 years.

He said the city, as a member of the Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance, is also allowed to use 1.24 million gallons a day from Greers Ferry and 1.2 million a day from Lake Ouachita but has no means to get the water from those sites to the city.

The water study and rate hike is based on the city using up to 12 million gallons of water a day, according to Rowland.

Rowland said that the city is also a member of the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority, which is working, with the federal government’s permission, to pump 15 million gallons of water out of Greers Ferry on a daily basis for use by its members.

The main line from Greers Ferry to Jacksonville could be completed within the next few years using stimulus money. The Lake Ouachita water, 20 million gallons daily, will be funneled out by CAW. “That’s still about three years away,” Rowland said.

Currently, CAW supplies Jacksonville and other area cities with water from Lake Maumelle and Lake Winona. “Those water sources will be good through about 2040,” Rowland explained. After that, CAW will start drawing from Lake DeGray.

Developer Mike Wilson told the council that the city should look at conservation and recycling before it starts jumping from lake to lake for its water. “Jacksonville could become a leader in this area rather than running around half-baked,” he told the council during the public hearing.

Only four residents spoke up at the hearing. All voiced concern about the need for such a large increase in rates.

Rowland, who helped with the city’s 2003 master water plan, which looked at water sources for the city through 2020, called the 2008 study an update.

In his presentation, Rowland said over the past five years, the water department has spent $5.4 million in capital improvement plans, but will need to spend about $38 million between now and 2011 to ensure the city has a stable and reliable water source through 2050.

The study shows another $13 million will be needed between 2015 and 2040 to maintain and expand the city’s water infrastructure.

Over the next two years, the city needs to cover the cost of the CAW water line being built across the Arkansas River to Crystal Hills, then to the North Little Rock Airport and finally to Gravel Ridge for Jacksonville to tie into it. The city’s portion of that major water line is about $14 million.

The largest single expense is $9.9 million for a new three million gallon water tank to hold the nearly 2.4 million gallons a day that the air base needs.

There is a possibility that the military will share in that cost, but the rate increase includes the entire cost. Other tanks and expanded and improved water lines will also have to be built, according to the engineers.

During the council vote, Sansing reiterated that the city was approving a “Christmas wish list.”

“Some of this can be postponed, modified or cut. It needs to go back to the water commission for review,” Sansing said.