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By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
Rockford Utilities customers can expect to see an increase on their water bill, but in turn the Utilities Board will receive a significant amount of funds for drinking water projects.
The board’s hope is to be able to expand its service area and provide water to more residences currently not serviced.
During a special called meeting held last Tuesday evening, board members discussed funds that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, or ADEM, was considering giving to the Utilities Board.
Engineer Dave Bechtel was present to discuss the matter and provide board members with more information. He stated that through American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds ADEM would be giving $825,000 to Rockford Utilities Board for drinking water.
He added that the funds are free and that it is not a loan the board would need to pay back. Rather, he told the board, “It’s your money.”
However, there is one catch. Bechtel told the board that it has to raise its water rates 5% per year in order to get the funds.
During discussion, Bechtel said that ADEM is requiring the same of every agency. He stated that if they do not raise their rates then they get nothing, but if they increase the water rates 5% annually then they get $825,000.
Bechtel did, however, tell the board that it can stop or remove that annual increase after a couple of years, adding that they do not have to continue it.
In ongoing discussion Board Member J.T. McDonald asked just how many years they would be doing 5%, whether it would just be until they utilized all of the funds or how that would be handled.
Board Chair Ronnie Brown said that it would last for however long it takes the board to spend the $825,000. When McDonald mentioned wondering how long that would take, Brown said “not long.”
Board Member Ronnie Joiner asked why they have to raise the rates 5% if ADEM is going to give them the money and it’s not a loan.
Utilities Superintendent Wade Brown explained that a representative, an unidentified “he,” told him that based on the Utilities Board audit, its “debt capacity is one of the worst in the state.” Brown further mentioned inflation being at 9% and said that the individual looked at the board’s audits and said that it is losing money every year.
Additionally, Brown said that he asked the individual about the board’s debt capacity and asked if it is because the board recently purchased Parker Creek Water, adding that the representative said “most likely.”
As such, Brown said that it is not as bad as what “he” is thinking and that it is just because that year’s audit reflected the board having purchased Parker Creek Water. Joiner mentioned that taking down all of the board’s capital.
Despite this particular situation with Rockford Utilities Board and the representative’s comments about the audit, Bechtel said that ADEM is making “a lot of small communities” instate the annual rate increase.
In further discussion, Chair Brown said that he thought it was a good idea. He stated that he wants to continue the Richville water project and that with the funds from ADEM they may be able to branch out and expand the service area.
He said they could go as far as they can go with it and branch off to provide water service to more residences. He said they would have to do a little at a time and see how far they could go utilizing these funds.
After discussion, the board unanimously approved accepting the $825,000 from ADEM and an annual 5% rate increase on water only, not gas.
It was also mentioned that for new customers going forward with this project, the normal tap rate of a $1,000 deposit would apply. Bechtel also stated that the board would have to bid out projects and follow standard procedures when utilizing the funds.
Bechtel said that ADEM would be sending the board a contract, which it should have by the end of the month. He said that he would fill out the necessary paperwork, the money will be deposited into the board’s account, and then it just pays as it goes.
The board said it would discuss its new building and other matters at its next regularly scheduled meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, September 19.