By Dawn Hensil
There was standing room only in the City Council chambers on Feb. 22 as the City of Salem conducted the second of two required readings of ordinances to approve water and sewage rate increases.
Council members approved an increase of 55.6% on water and 25% on sewage for each customer of Salem’s water. This increase would result in a total of an 80.6% increase in each customer’s bill.
Emotions ran high as members of the public expressed their dissatisfaction. They raised concern over bad water quality, the monthly cost of the rate increases, and when much-needed repairs to the city’s water infrastructure would begin.
The city has been operating in the negative month after month, according to City Accountant Phil Nuce. Nuce said the increase is necessary for the city “get the budget back in line so that we can break even again” and comply with West Virginia Senate Bill 234.
Nuce explained that the rate increases, which will allow the city to set money aside, will allow the city to meet requirements for grants for some of those needed improvements. Reserve funds may also be used for unanticipated expenses.
SB 234 passed in 2015, but Salem officials said changes to the law in 2021 meant that Salem was no longer in compliance.
Nuce said that to comply with the law’s requirements, Salem must “basically maintain these operational maintenance expenses in a segregated account to cover extraordinary items.”
Until recently the city had used money from the general fund account to pay for the overages on the water every month.
Members of the public asked why Salem has not been able to set aside funds dedicated to repairing the city’s water
City Manager Ronnie Davis stated that due to the condition of many of the water lines running through town, “We are losing about 52% of our water.”
To cover these losses, Nuce said that “every month we are borrowing from the general fund.”
Of great concern were the repairs needed to stop this water loss and how the city planned to get the necessary funds to do so. Nuce said that “if we don’t have these rates in place, grant agencies, loan agencies, aren’t going to give us more money if we are not able to make do with what we have now. So that’s how that all correlates together.”
Many Salem residents remained unmoved and expressed other dissatisfactions with the city regarding the water rates, and how monthly charges are calculated.
Shawn Gains said one month, the bill was $318 and the next time it was $220, even though nothing in the household had changed.
Some members of the public were concerned with the general loss in population in Salem and felt that these water rate increases would be yet another incentive for people to leave. Gains said, “This happens, there will be a lot of people leave Salem.”
Another member of the public Don Myers expressed his concern by stating, “We lost 300 voters last year. How many more can we afford to lose?”
Myers also introduced a petition challenging the raise in water rates and calling for an investigation into the matter by the Harrison County Commission.
According to the Public Service Commission, an appeal would require at least 25% of the Salem water customers’ signatures and the residents did not have enough signatures to appeal the increase in the water and sewage as of Feb. 22. They do have 30 days from the time city officials file with the state Public Service Commission to get the needed signatures and bring an appeal forward.
According to the PSC website, city officials had not yet filed with the PSC as of last week.