Ellerbe residents face unknown water rate increases

3 % rate increase from county is tip of the iceberg

By Kevin Spradlin

* May 29, 2015: Draft county budget includes water, sewer rate hikes
* June 23, 2014: Ellerbe to ride $776K budget into 2015

ELLERBE — Richmond County government officials are expected to adopt its Fiscal Year 2016 budget later today. The budget includes a proposed 3 percent hike in water and sewer rates.

For 1,000-plus residents of the small town of Ellerbe, that could be just the start of an uptick in water rate increases.

During Monday night’s public meeting, Councilman Corey Brewer warned that the town’s sewer lagoon closure project and the grants that stem from the $6.6 million project are going to cause the town’s water rates — which directly affect sewer costs with the water use — to skyrocket to unknown proportions.

Town officials said they haven’t been collecting as much as they’ve been spending on water treatment.

“We’re robbin’ Peter to pay Paul,” Brewington said.

Brewington said one of the requirements of the lagoon project grants included a rate increase.

“How much? I don’t know,” he said.

And, Mayor Lee Berry noted, “if water goes up, sewer goes up.”

Town attorney Bill Webb was quick to put the conversation in perspective. He asked Jean Klein, a planner with the Lumber River Council of Governments, if any other area municipality has a combined water and sewer bill with a base cost of $49.22.

Klein said no — not in the COG’s five-county area. The town of Ellerbe, she said, has the lowest combined water-sewer rate in the region.

“It’s not like the citizens are gettin’ gouged,” Webb said. “It wouldn’t be fair for the citizens to think that this council is not handling their money fairly. It has worked hard to put in a brand new sewer system.”

Webb said the sewer project was “something that thad to be done.”

Klein suggested rates should go up a little each year simply to keep up with increases in labor, health insurance, water chemicals, contractor labor and more.

“If you don’t increase your (fees) each year by some amount … you just get further and further and further behind,” she said, “and the town has done that. They’ve been borrowing money from the fund balance in order to make the water system whole. You can’t do that.”

Council members are to conduct a public meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 15 at Town Hall to adopt the FY 2016 budget. It includes a combined fund balance appropriation from the water and sewer rainy day funds of  of $246,750. Town officials will hold a work session at noon on June 9. It’s also open to the public.

Webb said the Local Government Commission has written Berry a letter about the town’s financial operations.

“You either straighten this out or we’re going to straighten this out,” Webb said the letter’s message conveyed. “Believe m, you don’t want the LGC down here on us because we aren’t collecting enough to pay the water and sewer bill. They will not put up with financial irresponsibility.”

 * * * 

This image represents only some of the important line items in the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget for the town of Ellerbe.

This image represents only some of the important line items in the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget for the town of Ellerbe.

Town officials also plan to appropriate more than a quarter of a million dollars from its general fund fund balance to make the numbers work — nearly one-third, or 30.4 percent of the general fund side of the ledger.

Town Clerk Jane Smith said Tuesday that for the current fiscal year, the town appropriated $201,000 from its fund balance and current projections show needing $142,000 of that.

And the year before that, “we didn’t even touch the fund balance,” Smith said. “It’s just a cushion.”

The general fund expenditures are $831,000 in the proposed budget, a 14.1 percent increase from this year.


Filed in: Ellerbe/Norman, Latest Headlines, News

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