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City residents upset over utility hikes
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Almost 400 people have signed a petition expressing concern over recent increases to water and sewer rates in the Richmond Hill, but officials say the state forced their hand because of the city’s growing population and an aging wastewater treatment plant.

The petition, which can be found here, had been signed by 392 people as of Wednesday. It was posted June 13.

The city signed a consent order with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division in 2008 that dictated a new wastewater treatment plant be built. The city had been paying fines of as much as $1,500 per month for violating discharge permits because the previous plant was too small to handle the population. The new plant, which cost $25 million, opened in May.

“Instead of increasing property taxes, the city made the tough decision to pay for the plant by increasing water rates,” Councilman Russ Carpenter said. “Every possible size and type of plant was considered to keep the price as low as possible while complying with strict EPD regulations.”

He added that the city built the new plant to handle current and future needs.

The city announced in 2014 that water and sewer rates would rise to pay for the plant. The base rate for each at the time was $12.50 per month. That increased to $16.50 in 2015 and to $20.50 this year.

The sewer base rate mirrors the water base rate, City Manager Chris Lovell said, because the two are tied together.

“We tried to notify people at the time about the need to increase rates,” Lovell added. “We had public meetings, but unfortunately, they were not well-attended.”

Beyond the base rate, water use is charged on a sliding volume scale per month. Up to 6,000 gallons costs $3.20 per 1,000 gallons. From 6,001 gallons to 10,000, the cost is $3.40 per 1,000 gallons. From 10,001 to 25,000, the cost is $3.80 per 1,000 gallons, and more than 25,000 gallons the cost is $4.75 per 1,000 gallons.

“The growing scarcity of the water supply has forced many cities to restructure how we supply water,” Lovell said. “EPD, in its efforts to conserve water, requires us to charge significantly more for water based on how much you use.”

Residents who are concerned about their water use do have options, Lovell said. One is to have the city check lines leading to the house for leaks. Homeowners can add shallow wells and use that water for irrigation. They can install irrigation meters for outdoor water use. Beyond the installation fee, irrigation meters have a $20.50 per-month base rate and a volume charge of $4.70 per 1,000 gallons used.

“The irrigation meter may not save any money in the long run, but it’s an option,” Lovell said. “You don’t pay the sewer fee because that water isn’t going to the wastewater treatment plant, but by the time you pay the monthly base rate even for the months you don’t irrigate, it might not be cheaper.”

Lovell said the city studied the rates in 2013 when determining how to pay for the wastewater plant and discovered Richmond Hill was below average compared to similarly sized cities.

“The water and sewer fund should stand on its own,” he said. “It should not be supported by SPLOST money or general-fund dollars.”
Lovell added that higher connection fees have also been put in place for new construction to spread the cost as evenly as possible across all users.

“The bottom line is, rates have increased over the last three years,” Lovell said. “But due to consistent growth, we think they may end.”

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