If DeKalb County does not upgrade its aging water and sewer system soon, the repairs will cost more than the $1.4 billion officials say it will cost if the work is done right away. That’s what county officials said during one of several recent public hearings on a proposed rate hike to fix the system.
“We are unfortunately now at that critical juncture where most of the aged pipes …really are on borrowed time,” said Ted Rhinehart, deputy chief operating officer for the county’s infrastructure group. “We can’t avoid the major improvements.”
Under the proposed hike, water and sewer rates would increase 13 percent each year for three years beginning in 2012 to help finance the capital improvements. That would mean customers with county water and sewer services currently using 6,000 gallons per month would see their rates increase from $59.52 in 2010 to $100.60 in 2014.
DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis told the county’s Chamber of Commerce on Monday that the water and sewer system is a basic necessity that must be maintained.
“The cost of groceries has gone up, but we’ve got to eat. The cost of gasoline fuel has gone up, but for most of us, we’ve still got to get around,” Ellis said. “The cost of our water and sewer infrastructure means that our water and sewer rates are going to go up. However, we’ve still got to be able to drink the water and we’ve got to flush the toilets.”
Even with the increases, DeKalb County’s rates would be fair and reasonable when compared to those in surrounding counties and municipalities, Rhinehart said. Comparable customers in Clayton and Gwinnett counties currently pay approximately $9 and $10 more per month than DeKalb customers, while Atlanta customers pay about $77 more.
During a public hearing last week, Gil Turman, president of the South DeKalb Neighborhood Association, said the billion-dollar project is a massive undertaking that would adversely affect senior residents, people on fixed incomes and the unemployed.
“That’s a lot of money,” Turman said. “Folks can hardly pay their house notes, can hardly pay their rent.” Turman said the county should meet with residents and find alternatives to the rate hike to make the capital improvements without residents suffering financially and losing their homes.
John Evans, president of the DeKalb County NAACP, said he thought the capital improvement plan is a good plan, but questioned whether the time is right given the county’s current economic state.
“What would happen to the county if they postponed this decision for a later date?” Evans asked. “I don’t think the county would fold up and go away because we didn’t do it now.”
Evans said that if residents could vote on the upgrades they would vote against any new taxes, fees and upgrades. The commission should consider other funding options.
“The key in my opinion is we don’t need to consider raising water rates,” Evans said.
In addition to the rate hike, the improvements to the water and sewer system would also be funded by $28.4 million in federal bonds that the DeKalb County Commission voted last month to issue.
The improvements to the water and sewer system would include:
• $378 million to rebuild, upgrade and expand the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Plant. Most of the components of this plant are past their usefulness, Rhinehart said.
• $65 million for the Polebridge Wastewater Treatment Plant.
• $38 million to upgrade the Scott Candler Water Treatment Plant.
• $179 million to improve parts of the water distribution system.
• $600 million to update the wastewater collection system.
• $82 million to start water reuse and to return treated wastewater to the Chattahoochee River, per state water planning requirements.
• $36 million for vehicles and equipment for the improvement project.
The county had intended to make these improvements beginning in 2008 increasing water and sewer bills 16 percent each year from 2008-10. But the sluggish economy and persistent drought combined to decrease demand on the utilities, thus lowering the revenue from the utility system. Instead of using the funds from the rate increase to make the capital improvements, the county had to use the money to maintain the status quo.
“The money that we expected to get, we never realized,” said Francis Kung’u, director of watershed management for the county. Revenue has been down about 15 percent over the past three years.
DeKalb County’s water and sewer system, which serves more than 730,000 people and 20,000 businesses, has about 5,200 miles of water and sewer lines, one treatment facility for drinking water and two for waste water.
Since 2006, there have been 836 county sewer spills. And every time there is a spill, the county gets fined. On Nov. 30, a manhole on Second Avenue in Decatur was washed away due to a storm, causing a 40,000-gallon spill.
Kung’u said the upgrades, which will take at least five years to implement, should not be delayed again because constantly patching the system is expensive and further delays will add to that cost and could jeopardize the availability of water in the county.
“We’re a business that cannot go out of business,” Kung’u said.