By Travis Smola
The subject of water bills came up again during the Vicksburg village council meeting in October. Three people used citizen’s time to trustees bring their concerns about higher-than-normal water bills.
Village officials, responding, noted that besides a rate increase needed to finance improvements, new water meters are more accurate than the older meters they replaced. The older meters often read less water than flowed through them as they aged.
Ken Jancarz, a Kathryn Street resident, spoke about a recent bill that took him by surprise. “It is the largest water and sewer bill I have ever received, and I’ve lived in the village for 33 years,” Jancarz said. He said he used 9,000 gallons more two years ago, but was billed over $100 less than he was in this most recent bill.
Barbara Wylie, another Kathryn Street resident, agreed with Jancarz. She said the sewer rate had gone up $4.65 per unit in fifteen months and water had gone up 19 cents. “Which is to me, ridiculous. And we have not been told the reason for it going up,” Wylie said.
“I have had problems with my bill from day one,” Wylie said. She said one of her bills was $3,500. Wylie also said she compared with another person in the village and found she had the same water usage, but her bill was $50 more.
Village records confirmed the $3,500 bill late in 2015.
Wylie also brought up an issue previously discussed by the council, which is a problem of the wrong size pipes being recorded. Wylie’s pipe is a three-quarter inch, but she said records show hers as one inch. “It just seems like no matter what you go in there and say, there’s always an excuse,” Wylie said. “And I think everyone is sick of it.”
Cheryl Hambright, also a Kathryn resident, said the bills don’t make sense and requested the council do a presentation at a meeting to explain exactly how the village is determining the water rates. “I’d like to hand them my water bill and ask them how they came up with this,” Hambright said.
Village Manager Jim Mallery then spoke at length on the issue. “We’re willing to meet with any citizen at any time and go specifically over an invoice,” Mallery said.
The rate increase for sewer and water has been explained at several other village council meetings, Mallery indicated. The rate increases are due to the system being old and needing to be repaired. To do this the village needed to authorize a $12 million loan from the USDA over a 40-year period. “We went through public noticing of that debt. We looked at the best option for this village, through the federal government, a USDA loan program which is under three percent interest rate this quarter. We hope it stays the same when we go to bid next quarter,” Mallery said. “But we presented and recommended to the council that a rate hike take place over a two-year period. In 2018 I authored a letter with every utility bill that explained this. I do regret and I will assume responsibility, that I should have done the same thing again this year.”
“Specific to the rate increase, there were two public notices in 2018 as it related to the assumption of debt for the infrastructure. It went through the legal and proper channels with presentations done by utility rate experts of the state for the critical needs with the infrastructure updates. Coupled with when you don’t raise rates, you’re not doing the proper maintenance and you have experts who give you a report that the Washington Street Lift Station is going to fail in 2022. Everyone who spoke would be shut off from being able to operate their sewer system if Washington Street fails, and that’s a million dollar fix. We need to account on state statue for enterprise funds, our water and sewer,” Mallery said.” You have to bring in enough revenue to pay for expenses to operate the system.”
The issue of incorrect water bills is not a new one. The council had previously discussed the issue back in February. “Historically our records go back to 2005. But to make heads and tails of what occurred from 2005 to 2012, it would drive anyone stir-crazy,” Mallery said.
In a previous meeting, Mallery noted that many problems from water bills resulted years ago from bills being changed to appease people who weren’t happy with the charges. But in most cases, the real problem resulting in the charges was never corrected.
“The reality of a community our size is we have about 1,300 consumers of the product,” Mallery continued. “Comparatively, Portage has almost 16,000.”
He noted also there are also debt obligations the village needs to meet and use fees that have not always been properly calculated. Mallery also noted that in 2017, they identified that most meters in the village were outdated and in need of replacement. He said this previously favored the consumer because the meters had a slower rate. “We’ve changed more meters in the last 28 months than this village has changed in the last 28 years,” Mallery said.
Along those same lines, Mallery said they also spent a great deal of time at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 looking at all the utility bills and correcting errors. He also noted that in March, the village began using new technologically advanced reading guns which are meant to bring the best accuracy possible. He said they’ve found most one-time expensive water bills are explained by the older meter equipment running slow.
“That reader on the outside has not kept up with the actual amount of water coming through,” Mallery said. He noted that in hindsight, much of this is the village catching up on long overdue bills.
“They should have been raising the utility rates in this village since 2000 by three percent a year and they failed to do it,” Mallery said. He noted there were some failures to charge proper hookup fees too. “I fully understand the impact this has on some individuals,” Mallery said. “It’s not enjoyable at all, but it’s needed.”
The council trustees all acknowledged they’ve dealt with the issue of high water bills themselves. Trustee Carl Keller said his bill has doubled even though he and his wife are now empty nesters.
“I feel your pain too,” Trustee Gail Reisterer said. “Unfortunately, it’s something that had to be done. We inherited some problems that had to be corrected. It’s painful for everybody.
Trustee Tim Frisbie agreed with these sentiments. “There isn’t one person here who hasn’t been to the village office in the last 20 years and had these conversations,” Frisbie said. “We’ve all gone through that. But we sit before you with the assurance that what is being done is being done above board and by the books for all our benefits.”
Mallery said they will look at doing a presentation for more disclosure in the future with more specifics on the high bills and handouts to explain what’s going on in depth.