Pelham sewer rates may be going up

Residents who use the Pelham sewer system may see an increase in their monthly bill following a special called City Council meeting Wednesday night.

During the meeting, Mayor Don Murphy presented the 2009-10 budget to the council, including increased sewer rates to cover the millions of dollars the system has been losing for more than a decade.

Billy Shepherd, a consultant for the Water Board, presented figures at the meeting that showed the city has been losing anywhere from $1-2 million each year on the sewer system due to a lack of city growth and rising maintenance costs.

The council revamped water rates in 2004 to offset costs, and may have to do the same with sewer rates to continue providing quality, efficient service.

During the years the sewer department has failed to pay for itself, the money deficit has had to come from the city’s general fund to balance the budget.

Council President Mike Dickens said the thought of the city losing that much money each year for more than a decade is unnerving.

“It’s absolutely absurd we haven’t taken an inquiry on this for 10-12 years,” Dickens said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Under the proposal made Wednesday night, residents who pay a flat sewer rate of $22 could see their monthly bill increase to as much as 100 percent on the high end, but as little as $2 for the minimum user. The average increase will be around $8.10.

Large businesses who pay a flat rate of $44 for sewer usage could see an increase as much as 100 percent or as little as $23.

The increase would make Pelham’s rates one of the highest in the area.

The Water and Sewer Department currently has approximately $8 million in reserves, but Director Eddy Jowers said $5 million of that would need to be spent in the next two years for planned projects.

Council member Karyl Rice said she is concerned some citizens will not be able to handle the rate increase in this down economy, while also saying she is concerned the city is trying to make money instead of just covering costs.

“It is immoral to take money that’s not ours,” Rice said. “I don’t think we need to look at this city as a profit-making machine.”

The council must approve the budget by Sept. 21, although the sewer rate increase may be separated from the city budget so that the council will have more time to look at their options. If the sewer rate increase is separated from the budget, the money to cover the expenses will come from the general fund, like years past, until a rate increase can be enacted to cover the costs.