Thursday, February 17, 2005

Aldermen reject rate hike request

Staff Writer

The Holly Springs Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to reject a rate increase in water, gas and sewer at the February 15 meeting.

Holly Springs Utility Department asked to increase utility rates to cover operational costs and to pay back bonds, according to Dee Miller, office manager with HSUD, who presented the request on behalf of the utility.

HSUD wanted a 24.5 percent increase in water rates, a 28 percent increase in gas rates and about 52 percent in sewer. Miller also asked for changes in the duties of a frontline customer service representative to streamline operations.

If the water rate increase had been approved, it would not have affected the sewer rate directly, because sewer would be based on water used, not the cost of water, Miller said.

Alderman Garrie Colhoun voiced strong objection to utility rate increases before making a motion to table the water and sewer rate hikes until more information is provided to the board. Russell Johnson seconded the motion and it carried unanimously.

“In my house and my business, I’m getting to a budget crunch,” Colhoun said. “I don’t understand why (the request). There’s got to be something you all can cut out — track hoes, backhoes and trucks.”

Miller said the utility waits until it needs equipment before buying it in many cases. The sewer department rarely purchases equipment, she said.

“I have a problem,” Colhoun continued. “I made a motion to table it last week and go on record as opposed to it.”

Mayor Andre’ DeBerry explained that the water and sewer rate request needed to be brought to a vote separately. He cited concerns with the United States Department of Agriculture/Rural Development, that rate increases are needed to pay down bonded indebtedness the city already has on water and gas expansion projects and the effect on the city’s credit rating.

Miller said she had been told by a representative with USDA/RD that Holly Springs’ rates were the lowest in the district - that the city could be required to raise its rates to meet bond obligations.

“Our rates should be tracking their request,” said DeBerry. “We need to get that from them. The board could be about to act on a rate that is too low for them.”

Colhoun then made a motion to throw out the gas rate increase followed by a second by alderman Nancy Hutchens. The motion passed unanimously, following an explanation by Miller that at the proposed new rate a $63 gas bill would increase under the new rate to $81.

Miller said one position needed to be advertised at HSUD due to a resignation and she asked for a billing clerk to have her duties changed to handle new customer applications, internal communications and incoming telephone calls.

The mayor and board discussed credit card and e-commerce methods of payment of utility bills through the Customer Service Association in Tupelo. DeBerry said if HSUD had to handle the billing fee of $1.25 per transaction that would be charged by CSA, the matter may have to go through the Public Service Commission, as it could be considered a rate increase.

Miller said the big utility customers prefer to pay bills with credit card, e-commerce or bank debit card. Other customers (absentee landlords, for example, or relatives) would use that method of payment to make sure their utilities are not cut off, she said.

In other business the board heard a concern of Elaine Tomlinson regarding water damage to her storefronts downtown.

She said rainwater leaks between the city’s canopies over her store fronts and runs down the exterior wall causing structural damage. The foundation has softened and is sinking in front resulting in separation, she said.

Colhoun suggested that the problem might be corrected with flashing. A city worker suggested that the fall on the canopy be checked.

“It’s all over the square,” alderman Hutchens said. “My brick fell off my building.”

The canopies were installed about 30 years ago as a part of an urban renewal project.

The Holly Springs Board of Aldermen meets at the courtroom in City Hall at 5:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of the month.

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