By Nelson Helm
Lexington city leaders, including City Manager Noah Simon, are concerned that water rates could rise if the Maury Service Authority’s plan to take over the operation of the area’s water plants goes through.
Simon has been open about wanting to get Lexington out of the water treatment business. During a city council meeting Jan. 21, Simon said that at the staff level, city employees thought it was a “great idea.” But he expressed concerns about the timing.
Maury Service Authority
MSA Executive Director Jerry Higgins sent a letter to Lexington city council Dec. 30 explaining its decision not to renew an agreement between the two parties, which provides that the city operates the MSA-owned water treatment and wastewater treatment plants. According to the letter, the plants will be run by the MSA beginning July 1.
The water authority has just two customers: Lexington and Rockbridge County. Buena Vista is not a customer.
However, Simon said he did not think the MSA executives and board had thought the plan through.
“This is not something that you can be a year out from and say we didn’t budget for this,” he said.
Higgins said that the original contract from 1973 had an end date of 30 years, to match the length of the municipal bonds issued to pay for the water treatment plants. But the agreement continued until late last year, when he sent his letter to the city council. He thought this was the right time to make the switch for a number of reasons, but saw the maturity of the MSA and its current staff as one of the major factors.
“In the past, the staff has not had the expertise to run the facilities,” Higgins said. “It is a matter of organizational maturity. It seemed like it fit well to change now.”
Currently, 14 Lexington employees work full time at the two MSA-owned plants and the city pays their salaries. However, once the MSA takes over daily operation of the plants their salaries will be included in its annual budget. Higgins does not see the number of workers changing and said he hopes to retain all current employees; they would simply work for MSA instead of the city.
Higgins also said it has gotten harder for a single person to run all aspects of the plant.
“[The water business] is no longer able to be conducted by one person,” he said. “You need specialists.”
Simon said he worries the plan had not been thoroughly vetted or analyzed. He was also concerned with the financial impact it might have on the city.
Other city leaders had similar concerns. City Council members Camille Miller and David Sigler wondered how they would tell their neighbors this was a better setup than the current one. Sigler wanted to know how ratepayers would be protected under the new system. He said the current agreement kept the taxpayer from paying for excess expenses, like buying a $70,000 truck when a $30,000 one could do the same job.
“There are checks and balances,” he said.
Lexington City Pool Manager Leslie Ayers said she wasn’t sure if the cost of daily water use and membership fees would increase under the new arrangement, but that could be an issue.
“We try to control water usage already. It’s already pretty expensive for us,” she said. “If you told me it would double, I would be concerned.”
Simon, Sigler and Miller all worry about the price of water increasing. The current price of water per 1,000 gallons is $2.48. According to the Virginia Household Water Quality Program, the national average is just over $2.
Higgins said that unless something drastic happens, he does not predict an increase for a couple of years.
“I have in my budget development for the present budget some pretty extensive calculations,” he said. “I don’t think those numbers are going to change at all. I think they are going to stay the way they are.”
However, Higgins’ estimates are based on the city selling its equipment to the MSA. He also was unsure of other costs that could arise, such as repairing a MSA-owned water line.
Higgins does not see this as an issue though, because most of the MSA’s pipes are approximately three years old.
“The typical water and sewer customer won’t notice anything different whatsoever,” he said. “Nothing changes from their perspective.”
City Councilman Frank Friedman was not convinced.
“The question is how is this in the best interest of the ratepayers?” he said. “Nothing I have heard is compelling.”
Sigler and Miller asked MSA leaders to retract their letter to slow down the process and to ensure all potential problems had been thoroughly vetted. City attorney John Vita said that even if the letter were retracted, the MSA still would have to take control of the operations on July 1.