Cumberland Times-News

November 14, 2013

Keyser residents voice concerns about proposed sewer rate hike

Increase could be as much as 96 percent

Elaine Blaisdell
Cumberland Times-News

— KEYSER, W.Va. — Keyser residents voiced concerns about not being able to afford a proposed sewer rate ordinance that would increase the rate by 96.5 percent during a public hearing Wednesday.

Resident Mark Tranum questioned how people on a limited income could afford the increase.

“There is almost 60 percent of the town that is on some kind of state or federal subsidy or retirement,” said Tranum.  

Councilman Terry Liller agreed to form a work group about offering some type of supplement for the cost of operating the water and sewer plant.

“I think, Mark, you have got a good point. Can we do something for the low-income retired people that this is going to hit the hardest?” said Liller. “We’ll look at it and see if there is some way legally that the town could afford to do something to help the lower-income people.”

 Liller indicated the caveat of the work group is that legally, money from another account couldn’t be used and that the plant has to be self-supporting.

The average annual income base for residents is $33,000, according to Karol Ashenfelter, spokeswoman for Keyser Citizens for Fiscal Accountability. Ashenfelter is circulating a petition opposing the rate increase.

The West Virgina Public Service Commission and Department of Environmental Protection didn’t take the income of the citizens into consideration when determining the proposed rate increase, according to Mayor Randy Amtower.

“They don’t care how much money you make,” said Amtower.

Amtower encouraged residents to contact state and federal legislators to voice their concerns about the proposed rate increase.

The purpose of the ordinance is to support a new $26.2 million sewer treatment plant, which is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP to meet Chesapeake Bay restoration mandates for limits on nitrogen and phosphorus. There are nine states suing the EPA over the mandates, according to Liller.

The DEP is putting the mandates in the city’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required for the city to discharge in the Potomac River, according to Amtower. The current plant, which is a lagoon-based system, does remove nitrogen and phosphorus but not to the required limits that need to be met by Dec. 31, 2015, according to Mike Kesecker, waste treatment plant supervisor.

“Basically, the problem you are running into is DEP is telling you to go on the Indianapolis 500 and the people that are paying for it are saying, ‘OK, here is your Ford Pinto, now go win it,’” said Kesecker. “It just doesn’t work.”

Kesecker has tried everything in his power to meet the Chesapeake Bay restoration mandate with the lagoon system and hasn’t even come close to the required limits, according to Amtower.

“We are three times where they want us to be,” he said.

 If the limits aren’t met by the deadline, the city will be fined, according to Amtower.

Ashenfelter voiced concerns about Dunn Engineering Inc. of Charleston, which is charged with designing the new sewer plant.  John Cole, senior project engineer at RK&K Engineers, who serves on the city’s water and sanitary board, has substantiated everything that Dunn and the DEP have brought before the board, according to Amtower.

The proposed increase could work out to less than 96.5 percent because it doesn’t factor in the $1 million that the city hopes to receive from the state Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, according to Amtower. It does factor in about $10.3 million that the city will receive from Senate Bill 45, which addresses restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. The bill could yield $11.3 million, but the total amount of funding won’t be known until bonds are sold.

“Some of those numbers aren’t known exactly but we have funding packaged together that will be supported by this proposed rate ordinance,” said Susan Riggs, counsel for the city.

The rate ordinance was determined by the PSC in class cost of service study, according to Riggs. It evaluated the burden each class of customer puts on the sewer system, including resale customers New Creek and McCoole, commercial, residential and industrial, said Riggs.

The average residential user, who uses 3,000 gallons per month, would pay $44.35 upon the rate going into effect, according to Riggs.

“Statewide, that is not an extraordinary amount by any means,” said Riggs.

The rate increase will not go into effect until a substantial completion of the project in about two years, according to Riggs.

A third reading of the ordinance will be held during a future council meeting and it will be voted on after the reading.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.