Councilman asks for no utility rate increase in budget
By Greg Oliver
CLEMSON — When Clemson City Council held the second of two consecutive evenings of budget meetings earlier this week, Councilman Mark Cato said he was bothered by a proposed 2 percent increase in utility rates.
“When is the last time we went up on water?” Cato said. “I would really like for us not to go up, and we could use some of the extra money we have.”
The 2019-20 water utility fund anticipates a net income of $20,000 and a year-end unrestricted retained earnings of $1,688,898. The recommendation of a 2 percent increase in rates follows the recommendation of the five-year utility rate analysis completed in February.
“Millage has increased because of the tax base, so technically there is a bigger budget with more money coming in,” Cato said. “I don’t feel comfortable going up.”
One problem is the volume of water sold to city customers. The utilities department estimated 515 million gallons of water to be sold in the current budget year, and while 525 million is anticipated to be sold in the proposed budget year, that is still down from the 570 million gallons consumed in FY ‘16-17.
Wholesale water purchases from the Anderson Regional Joint Water System are anticipated to be $1.76 per 1,000 gallons next year.
Another issue is that the proposed budget has a full year of debt service on the ARJWS ozone system, which added $110,000 of annual costs to the city’s water purchases. However, city officials say the $13 million project has significantly improved the taste and odor issues of the system’s finished water process.
The city utilities department also has a goal of replacing 450 water meters on an annual basis, allowing a total replacement schedule over a 10-year period. Officials say the water meter is the “cash register” of the utility, and when meters begin to malfunction, they under-record the volume of water that passes through the meter. While the utilities department switched to new electronic meters two years ago and those meters are more expensive, the low-flow metering will provide higher accuracy and not need replacement when remote meter reading becomes feasible.
City administrator Rick Cotton said Clemson is in the middle of the pack when compared to utility rates of other municipalities statewide.
“That’s where you want to be,” Cotton said.
Mayor J.C. Cook said customers who get utilities bill often mistakenly think they are only being billed for water.
“It’s water, sewer, garbage and stormwater,” Cook said.
Cato said he understands all the reasons given, but added, “I would rather not do it.”
Utilities director Benjie McGill said unfunded mandates from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control “require us to do more things than we did years ago,” and Cotton said utilities funds are not used to fund other programs or projects in the city.
“Other cities may take revenues from utilities and put that into other projects,” Cotton said. “We’re not using our utilities to fund other things.”
Councilman Fran McGuire said part of the problem may be a lack of transparency with customers, encouraging city officials to improve the lines of communication.
“This is a really good bargain,” McGuire said. “The water is not only great tasting, but it smells like it should.”
McGill agreed, adding, “We do quality samples each month and haven’t had a problem in years. We’ve had excellent water quality.”
He added that trying to forecast revenues “is tied to the water.”
“The last two years, our water sales have been down because irrigation has been non-existent,” McGill said. “If it rains, we’re not going to sell water. If it doesn’t rain, we’re not going to sell water. Everybody else is using a lot of water in the summer — we’re not.”
Another budget item involved the fire suppression agreement with Clemson University, which increased from $825,000 to $1,008,000. Cotton said the increase reflects the costs of placing firefighters in the new fire station on Issaqueena Trail in December 2017.
“This is one of the few departments that have no city employees in the contract with Clemson University,” Cotton told council. “They handle cleanup around the station, and we handle maintenance and repairs.”
City clerk and business license clerk Beverly Coleman said business licenses in the city have grown to $1.8 million.
“In 10 years, it has gone from $600,000 to $1.8 million,” Coleman said. “Ten years ago we were doing 600 business licenses, and now we’re doing 2,200 — in town and out of town.”
As part of the administration budget, a recommendation was made to upgrade the half-time business license inspector position to a full-time position, with increases in pension and health insurance. That would bring the total personnel cost increase over the current budget to $27,000.
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