County approves budgets, hikes sewer rate, keeps water rate steady

Washington County sewer customers will see a 3.5% rate increase effective July 1, while the county commissioners decided not to approve a similar increase for water customers.

The board made those decisions unanimously, as well as voted 5-0 Tuesday to approve its operating and capital budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

The board is bracing for more fiscal bad news after Chief Financial Officer Sara Greaves said she heard the state might cut disparity grants, which are for poorer counties. The county was anticipating a higher $7.8 million disparity grant for the new fiscal year.

The county commissioners continued to ask the heads of finance and environmental management about ways they could possibly avoid or delay either rate increase, especially in light of residents facing financial struggles due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To offset the roughly $20,000 the proposed water rate increase would have generated, Environmental Management Director Jeremy Mose said he will continue to hold open three positions for about six months.

Mose, in a phone interview after the meeting, said two treatment plant operators and a collections operator position have been vacant for four or five months. Leaving them vacant longer will help county officials determine if they can do without those positions altogether, adding to cost savings. Mose said he didn’t expect the vacancies to create additional overtime.

Other cost-saving measures the department has already enacted include turning off equipment not in use to save on electricity; reducing chemical use; saving on gas expenses by doing training online and coordinating lab trips; and sending reports to the state electronically instead of by certified mail, Mose said.

The new sewer rate will bring an average residential customer’s bill, based on 12,000 gallons per quarter of water usage, to $175.55 per quarter. That’s an additional $23.64 a year. The new base rate for 6,000 gallons will be $130.31 per quarter with each additional 1,000 gallons costing $7.54 per quarter.

If the proposed water rate increase had been approved, it would have cost the average residential water customer an additional $24.52 a year.

The county received 11 written comments about the utility rates, all of which were in opposition to the rate hikes. Because of the pandemic, the county didn’t hold the traditional in-person public hearings for the rate increases or the budget.

The commissioners also agreed to have an advisory group review the utility rate model and ways to save further money related to utility costs. That group would report back in three months. The commissioners are expected to further discuss that group next week.

The water and sewer funds are supposed to be self-supporting though they do occasionally get help from the taxpayer-supported general fund.

One of the difficulties with the water fund being able to cover its expenses is the county only has about 1,300 customer accounts, of which approximately 1,200 are residential customers, Mose said.

The county has about 11,000 sewer accounts, of which approximately 7,000 are residential customers.

The general-fund budget will increase by 0.9%, or $2.1 million, to $235.9 million. All operating budgets would decrease by 1.15%, or $3.3 million, to $287.7 million.

The capital budget is $54.9 million, a decrease of 2.6% or $1.4 million.

Projected revenues for the operating budgets were reduced by about $17 million due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, Greaves said. Income-tax revenue in particular is expected to be hit hard with so many people out of work or facing fewer work hours.

The revamped income-tax revenue figures didn’t specifically address the disparity grant situation, but were lowered based on the level of risk, Greaves said in a phone interview.

What’s unknown is whether state officials are considering cutting the planned increase in disparity grants, reducing the grants or eliminating the grants, Greaves said. The county is getting about $2 million in disparity funds this fiscal year.

The commissioners met publicly in person Tuesday for the first time since late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The commissioners did not wear masks during meeting discussions, but sat farther apart than they normally do. When two staff members presented information together, they left space between their seats and took turns wearing their masks while one or the other spoke. They also were provided with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to wipe the area before the next staff member presented information.

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