Rome’s water and sewer customers likely will see a minimum 2.5% rate increase every year for the foreseeable future — starting with an average $1.51 per month hike on Jan. 1.

The water and sewer committee voted Thursday to send a recommendation to the Rome City Commission for the across-the-board rate increase for 2020. The purpose of that increase is to partially recoup expected system upgrade costs.

Right now the average customer is paying approximately $59 a month for water and sewer. After the increase, the average customer will be paying approximately $61.50 total per month.

This was the same increase approved by the Rome City Commission for 2019. The city expects that increases will continue each year into the future.

“It’s expensive to be in the water and sewer business. It just is,” City Manager Sammy Rich said during the meeting. “I think, as a community, if we’re not willing to keep slow and steady incremental increases, then we’ve got to be prepared for the big, big increase down the road.”

The ongoing increase was the general recommendation that Stantec rate planning consultant Bill Zieburtz gave to the committee.

“It’s a tough, tough assignment to get elected officials to face this kind of thing,” Zieburtz told the committee, which also consists of water and sewer department officials.

Although commissioner and committee chair Evie McNiece joked that that’s why they wait until after the election to raise rates, she said she had nagging concerns about initial recommendations by Zieburtz to set cumulative 2.5% hikes over a 10-year period — instead of setting the rates year by year.

McNiece said she worries that if residents are told there will be a 2.5% increase each year over 10 years, they will feel the city was not being honest with them if the increase ends up being more than that in successive years.

Commissioner Milton Slack, who also serves on the water and sewer committee, agreed.

“They will think we lied to them,” Slack said.

Zieburtz told the committee that if they really want to get ahead of their debt and have more in their Capital Improvement Project fund, they could consider an 8% increase. This would raise average rates to nearly $65 per month.

“That’s not going to fly,” McNiece interjected as her colleagues sided with her.

The city’s water and sewer operation is an enterprise fund. It’s supported solely by customers, instead of with property taxes drawn from a general fund.

There are currently 16,932 water customers and 20,100 sewer customers, according to Rich. The residential city water rate is $2.71 per month per 750 gallons, while the sewer rate is $4.09 per 750 gallons, Rich said.

The rate increase is expected to bring in about $120,000 more for the city in 2020, which will go toward a reverse osmosis water filtration system deemed necessary to protect residents from harmful chemicals produced by carpet manufacturers and others upstream and outside Floyd County.

The Rome City Commission passed a resolution at its Nov. 4 meeting giving City Attorney Andy Davis authority to take legal action against those polluters, if it’s deemed necessary to force cooperation.

Commissioner Bill Irmscher asked Finance Director Toni Rhinehart how much the city has in reserves — just in case they should run into issues paying the bills.

Rhinehart reported there is a cash balance of $18 million and that current loan debts will be falling off in 2020.

The City Commission likely will have the rate increase resolution on its agenda for its Nov. 25 meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Rome City Hall.

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