High Volume Water Hike Main Focus At Pennington Gap Council Meeting

[You can view the agenda for this meeting.]

PENNINGTON GAP – The recently passed rate hike for Pennington Gap’s high volume water users was the top issue at this Monday’s Town Council meeting at 528 Industrial Drive. Owners and representatives of three Pennington Gap businesses that are affected by the town’s recent rate hikes attended the meeting to voice their opposition.

The rate hike is substantial for some business customers. Teresa Kennedy, owner of Tidy-K Laundry at the corner of Doris and E. Morgan, said that her monthly water bill would increase by 80%. Ms. Kennedy prefaced her remarks, saying, “I want you to understand that I gross less money [at the laundromat] than I did when I bought it 18 years ago.” “With insurance and all the other things I have to pay constantly going up–my water bill’s going to practically double; I’ll have to raise rates on the very people that can’t afford to have them raised on.”

Kennedy asked town manager Keith Harless how the town arrived at the figure (the 80% increase). Harless replied, “We hired Lane Engineering to do a rate study because we knew we were losing money at the water and sewer plant. We looked at their [Lane Engineering’s] numbers and realized that we were losing a couple of hundred-thousand dollars a year.”

Harless further specified that 42 customers will be affected by the rate hikes.

Councilwoman Jill Carson added, “There are so many things that have brought us to this place [needing to raise water rates]. We–there has been no increase in water rates since 1998.” Carson evoked shortcomings in water revenues as roadblocks to the town obtaining grant funds, such as through RADA, because the town is not currently meeting the revenue requirements necessary to apply for that funding.”

Agencies will not award the town grant funds to help subsidize water treatment if the town is not already charging market rate for the water, or if the business plan for water treatment is not feasible and sustainable.

Kennedy went on to say that if an alternative solution to the town’s water revenue shortfall could not be reached, an 80% higher water bill might cause her to close down her business for good. Ms. Kennedy asked Mr. Harless what would happen if businesses shut their doors because of the rate hikes. He responded, “It’d be devastating.” Kennedy reiterated that she would seriously consider closing down if the rate hikes stay in place, and she added that she felt that she and other high volume users were being “punished.”

Kennedy’s brother said, “She won’t raise her prices because it upsets the customer. These are the poorest people on the planet. If the rates go up, I’m going to push her [Ms. Kennedy] to just lock the doors. It’s not worth it.”

Frank and Becky Bates of Family Tire & Warsh House echoed the concerns of Ms. Kennedy. Mr. Bates said of Councilman Jimmy Warner, “You owned a car wash, you know how slim the profit margins can be.” Similarly, Bates asked Councilman Pope, “You ran a convenience store years ago—were you charged extra because you sold more Cokes?” To which Pope replied, “It was totally different; the more you sold, the better deal you got.”

Bates went further, saying, “High water users can’t absorb everything.” He said that there are two car washes in town, and that his uses more water than the other one. Bates said, “A thousand gallons of water is a thousand gallons of water; it’s not fair to charge me more than the other car wash for the same water.”

Bates added, “I’ve had a business in town for 22 years, and this is the first time I’ve come to complain. I’m not a complainer.”

Becky Bates said, “I just don’t think it’s fair that we are singled out over everybody else. It’s not our fault that the water rates haven’t gone up in years.”

Todd Williams spoke for the AutoClean Carwash saying, “We will just go out of town–run the business in Woodway.” Williams also feels that the high volume water users are being punished for mistakes made by previous town councils that did not raise water rates to keep up with inflation.

Gary McElyea said, “When we came up with these rates, we thought they were the best rates we could come up with, but it probably isn’t the best now that I’m hearing you. The Council should revisit this, but still we are losing money.” McElyea made the point, “You all are saying that you will just close the doors, but we can’t close the doors. We have to keep providing water, and we can’t do it at a loss, because–pretty soon–we won’t have a town.”

Kennedy asked why the deficit had to be made up by the high volume users, “Why not everybody?” To which, Councilman Pope replied, “We did cut the rates for everybody; we cut minimum base rate cut from 3,000 gallons to 1,500 gallons.”

Councilwoman Carson made the point, “When we advertise on hearings on the budget, people don’t come. But we want you to understand that we want to work on this together.”

Becky Bates said that the announcement did not have an amount or percentage listed, otherwise they would have come. Ms. Kennedy stated that she does not live in town and relented that she has not paid enough attention to advertisements in the past, but that she does now.

Councilwoman Jill Carson thanked citizens for their input and assured them that the discussion would be ongoing among the council.

Frank Bates asked if any other towns in our area have a high volume water usage rate. Jeff Cochran of the Lane Group advised that Big Stone Gap has a higher rate for sewer and that the City of Norton has a higher, bracketed rate for both water and sewer.

Mayor Holbrook thanked all for their comments and assured all that the subject would be revisited in closed session that night.

Council Member Reports

Jimmy Warner reported about the large potholes near the old tobacco warehouse on Mulberry Street. Town Manager Keith Harless said that he would get in touch with the pavers and have the potholes fixed in a couple of weeks.

Jill Carson reported that Sonny Martin had sold his house, and that in the process of the sale, surveyors determined a small piece of property adjacent to Martin’s house is actually town property, and that that property needs to be cleaned.

Ms. Carson also reported that she, along with Mr. Harless and Mr. Holbrook, attended the SWVA Economic Forum last week at U.Va.-Wise. Carson said that, during the course of that meeting, she learned that George Cridlin is involved with GO VA. Carson also spoke briefly about GO GREEN awards and how she feels the community would benefit from green initiatives.

Gary McElyea reported that several ATV enthusiasts stayed overnight at Leeman Field for five days, and that the park continued to look good despite recent vandalism. Some discussion of adding more cameras then ensued amongst various council members.

Terry Pope’s report was about more cameras being needed at Leeman Field in an effort to curb vandalism. Pope also advised that a letter should go out to Comcast about a utility pole that leans severely at the corner of Summit Ave. and Herndon St. Pope concluded by stating that the Town Attorney needs to contact Wise County with regards to an ordinance about unkept property.

The Council then voted to go into closed session at 7:20 p.m.

At about 10 o’clock p.m., the Council reconvened in open session and approved the following motions.

  1. To advertise for a Public Hearing regarding amendments to the 2016/2017 Budget to be scheduled for June 19, 2017 at 6 p.m.
  2. To advertise for a Public Hearing for the 2017/2018 Budget to be held on May 31, 2017 at 2 p.m.
  3. To advertise for a School Resource Officer as required per existing grant obligations.
  4. To advertise for a Public Hearing regarding a 2% increase in the Town Meals Tax to be held on June 19, 2017 at 6 p.m.
  5. To approve a reduction in force according to §8.2 of the Town’s Personnel Policy due to budgetary reasons. To this effect, a town employee was released from employment on the morning of Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

The Council voted to adjourn at 10:20 p.m.

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