Concerned customers of the Hamrick Public Service District packed the courtroom on Wednesday for the public hearing regarding the district’s proposed water project, which will increase the amount these people will pay for water by an estimated $13 to $17 dollars per month.
Shane Whitehair, Director of Region VII Planning and Development Council, which services seven counties, gave an overview on the project and how the Small Cities Block Grant is awarded. He also introduced Cary Smith, the project manager.
Whitehair stated that the Small Cities Block Grant is the only specific water and sewage grant program in the state of West Virginia therefore, it is a very competitive program.
They usually have sixty to eighty applications totaling $100 million and typically have an estimated $8.4 million to award. “It is important for us to put in the best possible application in order to be competitive,” said Whitehair. “This will be our fourth year to apply for funding. This is a normal process. Some projects have taken ten years to receive funding. Providing basic needs to folks in the community is our priority, water and sewer.”
“This is a 6million 250 thousand dollar project,” Whitehair stated. “The project looks to extend water to about 8 miles up Location Road and also make several improvements to the existing water distribution and treatment system that the Hamrick PSD manages.” Whitehair added that this project would provide water to 45-50 homes on Location Road, upgrades to the water treatment plant, booster stations, storage tanks, and hydrants. He went on to explain that the Location Road extension would not be able to receive funding as a stand alone project due to the cost/repayment ratio. It was also noted that there would not be any hydrants on the Location Road extension due to pressure and elevation issues.
“The funding breakdown consists of a $1.5 million Small Cities Block Grant, a $1 million West Virginia IJDC grant and a 1% loan from the infrastructure council of $3.7 million,” stated Whitehair. “We will know if we are funded between October and February.”
Commissioner Rosenau wanted to explain the county commissions involvement, “The only thing the county commission is here trying to do today is provide an avenue for the grant application.”
Whitehair went on to explain that all SCB Grants must run through a local unit of government, and since the Hamrick PSD is not considered one, the county commission is agreed to sponsor it.
Rosenau added, “ The way it was explained to us is that there hasn’t been an upgrade to the water treatment system in 15 years and it’s been 40 years for the rest of the system. We were told the upgrades have to be done. What we as a commission were trying to do, is apply for a grant to reduce the total cost of the project and in turn reduce the cost of the customers water bill.”
Whitehair explained that without the grant money, the PSD would have to look at more loans which would increase their debt which would in turn increase the costs to the customers.
Whitehair went on to explain, at Rosenau’s request, that the meeting was not scheduled, as suggested, so that nobody could attend. He said that the regional council always sets their meetings in conjunction with county commission or city council meetings since these units of government are the sponsors for the grant applications. “We advertise it, it’s out there, we are not trying to hide anything,” stated Whitehair.
At this time the floor was opened for questions. Questions were asked as to how much the rate would increase, when the increase would go into effect.
Whitehair explained that the average bill for the Hamrick PSD at this time is $29.82 for 3300 gallons of water per month. This same bill would go to an expected $47.42 per month with the project. The minimum rate at this time is $27.42 and will go to $43.60 after the project is completed again for water only. All areas of the project will start simultaneously and is expected to be completed in about 2 years. The rate increase will not go into effect until the project is completed.
Whitehair added, “Without the Location Road extension the bill would be approximately $46.42 per month. So only $1 less. This rate is estimated by the accountants, who take into account the usage, number of homes that are serviced, etc. Without the Location Road project, I don’t think you will get as much grant money. These estimates are for water only and do not include sewage.”
Michael Helmick of the Hamrick PSD stated, “The upgrades have to happen. The question is how to fund them. If we don’t receive a grant we will have to look at probably more loans and where to change the scope of the project. Our current loan will be paid off in one and one half years, so we lose a little bit of our debt there. So now is the time to do the Location extension and why it was added to the scope of the project. With the county commission giving us the $50,000 to become shovel ready, we feel now is the time. We have our best chance at receiving funding. We were very close last year.”
When asked why the Location Road customers couldn’t pay a surcharge instead of all customers receiving a rate increase, Helmick explained that the rates are set by the Public Service Commission. Not the local board of directors or the district staff and the PSC insists that all customers pay the same rate and will not allow a split rate or surcharge .
One lady in attendance wanted to know if people were required by law to subscribe to the water service and what would happen if customers discontinued their service and went back to using their wells.
Whitehair stated, “No there is no requirement for a person to subscribe to public water, sewer yes, but not water. Obviously, the more customers you have paying for the service the more the cost will be spread.”
When asked why upgrades weren’t done before this and why there was not a “Rainy Day fund” to take care of these upgrades, Helmick replied, “The PSD is not allowed to have a surplus. The PSC regulates our rates and allows us to have 12.5%. So we have a rainy day fund to take care of repairs and breakdowns so we don’t have to take it out of operating costs.”
One gentlemen stated that he felt the county commission ought to put money into projects like this to keep costs down instead of using it on a Rock Park on the mountain or a theater in Thomas. The county commission spends money on things that this county really doesn’t need. And the things we do need, they want us to pay for and I don’t think that is right. In my opinion, this county wastes a lot of money that you shouldn’t be wasting. It seems like the people that run this county have a do what I want attitude and don’t care about the rest of us.
Commissioner Hinkle replied that the Rock Park was not funded by the county commission. “The Rock Park is a Tucker Community Foundation project not a county commission project.” Hinkle stated. “I think infrastructure projects are very important because they help the most people.”
Bill Bilby received applause for stating, “I was one of the original group that started this public service district. The original rate was $8.12 a month for the first three years. I know for a fact that the people on Location Road really need the water, there is no doubt about that. But I do not agree with the people that have been on this system helping to finance this project, even though it is well needed. I think it’s unfair for people who have been on it since the beginning of the system to have our rates go up everytime there is an extension. We have financed a lot of them. The advantage to the people in the outlying areas is they don’t have to pay as much as we do, because they don’t pay for sewage. Again, I will say that it is unfair, in fact you could almost say dishonest for the people who have been on it to help finance another extension, which we have in the past.”
Ray Tuesing stated, “Everybody needs water, but we’ve got to do something about these rates. I have about 65 people in Hendricks who say they are going back to their wells, so that’s going to make the rates higher These people can’t afford this. I don’t know what they are going to do. We need to find someway to help these people.”
The commissioners asked, “Do you want us to withdraw our $50,000 funding and our grant application?”
Tuesing said that he wasn’t the one to make decisions. He was just asked to bring it to them. Tuesing asked about the PSD board of directors. He wanted to know what they were paid.
Helmick stated they were paid $125 per meeting and they have one meeting a month. Helmick added that no members of the board, Jim Suesli, Robert Summerfield, and Chris Michael, were present.
Roxanne Tuesing stated, “I feel a lot of this problem could have been solved if the Hamrick PSD had done a mass mailing to their 755 customers stating that our water plant needs work, there needs to be upgrades, we need to extend the line to Location. It is going to cost this much money. People do not read the newspaper and do not understand. If they have it in their hand, they can study it. They can look at it. A half page ad in the Parsons Advocate and the Elkins InterMountain would have gone a long way to helping explain exactly what this project involved, how much it cost, and what the timeline was. Most of these people wouldn’t be here if they had understood that. They found out, like I did, yesterday morning. And they’re upset. I have people that live on $678 and $724 a month. Every extra penny out of that means the difference in a little bit of food on their table or buying the medicine they need. And that’s why I’m here and why I created this mess.”
Whitehair added that in defense of the the region and the county officials that this was about the fifth or sixth meeting that had been held. Mrs.Tuesing asked him how many people were at those meetings. He replied that he didn’t know.
A lot of additional concern was raised regarding the impact this rate increase will have on those with lower fixed income. One gentleman asked, “Who is looking after the people on fixed incomes? What are we going to do with them when we get down to the point where it’s food, water bill, or medacine. What goes first? The food or the water bill? How are we going to make sure that they continue to get the water without raising their rates to a point that they can’t afford them. Are we just going to say, ‘Sorry about that, you’re on your own.”
Whitehair stated, “I have asked that question many times. Like I mentioned before, none of the folks in this room regulate what your rates are going to be.”
One gentleman asked if they could try to get funding from other areas such as corporations?
Whitehair said that the funding could come from bake sales or fund raisers, private or public funds.
Whitehair stated that there was no guarantee that the PSD would get the grant and that even if they did receive the grant that they would get all of the $1.5 million.
One attendee stated, “I think that everybody in attendance is wanting the county commission to finally back the citizens of Tucker county instead of everything else. We’re wanting them to stand up for us and say is this right, is this wrong, is this what we should be doing? Are they going to let us fall flat on our face? It sounds to me like that’s what’s going to happen. The commission needs to speak up and say this is what needs to happen.”
Commissioner Rosenau asked how they were not speaking up?
The reply was that they were only putting $50,000 and this was just now coming out that this needs to be done.
Commissioner Hinkle added that the $50,000 is our show of support.
Commissioner Rosenau added, “Some of the funding that comes into the county commission can only be spent on specific items per state statute. Just like the $50,000 we have approved for this project. It comes from the Coal Severance Reallocation Fund, which can only be used for infrastructure.”
Whitehair closed the meeting by stating that he would leave business cards and invited all to take one and get in touch with him with any additional concerns or questions.
Commissioner Rosenau invited all to stay for the upcoming commission meeting and asked the quests to please come back to future commission meetings. “This is the biggest audience we’ve had in a long time and I’m glad to have the chance to tell you about some of the things happening in are county.” Rosenau added