By Dawn Hensil
Salem City Council members say they need to significantly raise water and sewer rates to make way for system upgrades. During a recent Council meeting, multiple residents said the increases would create financial hardship.
On Feb 8, Salem City Council discussed the first reading of two ordinances to amend water and sewage rates, increasing the water rate by 55.6% and the sewage rate by 25%.
Mayor Bobby Samples said state officials required the increase. He pointed to the passage of Senate Bill 234 by the state Legislature.
“That’s for every municipality in the State of West Virginia,” he said. “So we have to abide by that in order to be in compliance to get to the grant.”
According to a notice posted to Facebook and dated Jan. 27, Salem “is applying for grants to upgrade the water system and the sewer system. The water system upgrade consists of trunk line replacement, beginning at the Methodist Church (Old Harden School) and going west to Harbert Funeral Home. The sewer system upgrade will consist of doubling the capacity of the treatment plant with some possible line replacements.”
The letter stated that the accounting firm of Bennett and Dobbins “informed Council and the public that to be in compliance with the Senate Bill (S.B.) 234, the City will need to raise both water rates and sewer rates.” The letter goes on to state, “This will put us in good financial standing to be eligible to receive grants and/ or loans for improvements.”
City Manager Ronnie Davis and the accounting firm of Bennett and Dobbins did not respond to phone calls seeking more information on the connection between Senate Bill 234 and the need to raise rates.
But Karen Hall, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Public Service Commission, provided clarification.
Senate Bill 234 passed in 2015. To be in compliance, Salem is “required to maintain 12.5% (one-eighth) of its annual O&M (operation and maintenance) expenses in an account reserved for emergency repairs,” she said. “That is what they meant about being ‘in compliance.’”
During the meeting, Mayor Samples and other Council members said they weren’t pleased with the increase.
Councilmember Linda Stuart stated, “These rates were told to us by the state. They’re the ones who determine the rate.”
Councilmember Shawnette Stout said, “I don’t want anyone to think that we’re okay with this because we’re absolutely not. Every single one of us that are sitting up here live in the city limits and we have to pay these same prices.”
Some members of the public raised concerns about the quality of the water.
“Two times a year we do lead and copper samples and if it comes back with a high level of lead or copper, you would be notified,” City Manager Ronnie Davis responded.
Mayor Samples told concerned citizens that they could call the city and request a water test.
At the end of the meeting, the floor opened for comments by residents. Resident Terri DeWitt asked if there was going to be a lowered rate for senior residents that struggle to make their monthly payments.
Mayor Samples stated that the cost increase would be the same for all residents across the city.
DeWitt asked if there was any way to adjust when payment for water and sewage would be due. She explained that many times, “my second check doesn’t come in till the 25th and all the due dates are (the) 20th. Is there any way that I could call instead or change my [due date] till the 25th when I have money in the bank? I mean, that’s really a problem for me.”
She said by the time she has the funds in her account, she is charged a $10 late fee before she can pay the bill. This raises her bill to almost $100 a month for water and sewage.
Resident Marie Kaltenbach stated, “This kind of an increase can be the difference between being able to pay your mortgage and taxes or selling your home and moving away.” She stressed that $25 may not seem like much but, for others, it’s comparable to $25,000.
“Every penny to me makes a difference,” she said.
“I don’t think that there is anyone on this council that likes these increases,” Mayor Samples said. “I don’t like the 55.6% water, but it’s a reality and it is going to happen.”
Another resident mentioned the high number of residents who have passed from COVID-19 in the past six months and predicted the increase will be another reason for people to move out of Salem.
Customers of water and sewer utilities that are owned by municipalities may protest the rate increase within 30 days of the time it is filed with the Public Service Commission, according to Hall. They must file a petition with the signatures of at least 25% of the utility’s customers.
Residents have started a petition, available to sign at Trail Side Pub.
Salem City Council meeting was scheduled to revisit the ordinance during a meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. The meeting will be held within Salem City Hall. A public hearing was scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
Erin Beck contributed to this report.