Higher water rates main concern at hearing

By Lynn R. Parks

The city of Seaford will hold a referendum Monday, May 14, on its plan to borrow $1.9 million to install water meters in city homes. The city council set the date at its Tuesday meeting, following a public hearing on the plan.

About a dozen people attended the hearing. While none of them said that the city shouldn't go through with the plan, many of them worried that the new meters will mean increased water bills.

"You can't tell me what my water bill will be once I have a meter," said Chris Vane, who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. "It's the unknown that bothers me. It should bother a lot of other people."

City manager Dolores Slatcher countered that even under the current system, where all households pay the same flat rate, she can't predict how the city's water and sewer fees will change over time. She said that with meters, residents who feel that their bills are too high can choose to conserve water to lower it. "You will have control over it," she said. "Now, you don't."

And she said that the possibility exists that bills for some homes will go down. Residents will pay a basic charge for a set amount of water that has yet to be determined. Any usage over that set amount of water will mean an extra charge.

At the start of the hearing, Slatcher listed the advantages to the city of having metered water. The city will bill according to usage, so that people who use higher amounts of water will pay for it. "Now, you might be subsidizing someone else who's using a lot of water," she said.

With meters, the city will better be able to detect water leaks, Slatcher said. It will also be better able to monitor its water usage, something that is becoming increasingly important to qualify for state and federal money. She predicted that the time is coming that the state will require municipalities to meter their water. Seaford is the "last large municipality in the state without water meters," she said.

The city will also be able to plan ahead for water infrastructure projects, Slatcher said. "We will be able to pre-plan instead of being reactionary," she said. Finally, meters will encourage conservation, Slatcher said.

Carol Beth Lambert, who lives on Porter Street and whose husband, Douglass, is running for a seat on the city council, questioned the need for conservation. "I am not a greenie-weenie person," she said.

"I believe that God has given us plenty of water and if we do run out, we've got the ocean. We can just take the salt out and use that water. I don't want the [Environmental Protection Agency], the state government or the federal government telling us what to do. I don't want to be forced to conserve."

Lambert also questioned the wisdom of using a state loan for the project. "I'd like to see the city float its own bond," she said.

Slatcher said that on its own, the city would not be able to qualify for the money-saving terms that it is getting with the state loan. "People that we talk to want us to save every nickel," she said. "Somebody's going to take that money and we might as well use it to help save our citizens money."

The loan that the city plans to use for the project is federal money, left over from the government's stimulus package and administered by the state. The city will pay 1-percent interest on the loan and at the conclusion of the project, 35 percent of the principal will be forgiven. In addition, the city won't have to pay closing costs.

Slatcher said that the city will pay $68,421 per year on the 20-year loan. That money will be collected through residents' water bills at the rate of $1.57 per month, an amount could fluctuate, she added, depending on how many dwelling units there are in the city.

The city intends to install 1,758 meters and meter pits. In addition, 350 meters will be installed on newer homes that already have meter pits.

The meters will be outside. They will have radio antennas on them and will be read remotely, just as the city's electric meters are read. Director of public works Berley Mears said that the same city employee will be able to read both water and electric meters.

Lambert questioned whether the federal government will be able to use the meters to shut off people's water. "Will the EPA be able to come in, say you are using too much water and turn it off?" she asked.

Slatcher assured her that that would not be possible. The radio is there only to enable the city to read the meter, not to turn it off. Whenever possible, the meters will be installed in the city's right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street. When that is not possible, Slatcher said, the city will work with homeowners to find the best place for the meter.

The city council has not decided who will be responsible should a meter break and have to be repaired or replaced. But Slatcher said that the staff will recommend to the council that the city be responsible for any maintenance on the meters.

The change in billing will not take place until all the meters are installed. Slatcher estimated that the project will take two to three years. As the meters come online, Slatcher said, the city will monitor water usage to determine what the basic rate will be.

With the metered water, residents will also pay sewer fees based on the amount of water that they use. Homes with sprinkler systems may want to have two meters installed, so that they don't pay sewer fees on water they use on their lawns. The city will pay for a home to have two meters installed, Slatcher said.

For your information: The city of Seaford will hold a referendum on its plan to borrow $1.9 million to install residential water meters. Voting will take place Monday, May 14, from 2 to 6 p.m. in city hall. For details, call the city, 629-9173.

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