Marion Council, residents talk water

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 21, 2005

The Marion City Council held a public hearing Thursday night in its continuing attempt to get out from between the rock of public opinion and the hard place of the city’s staggering water bills.

According to documents distributed by the Council at the hearing, each month the city pays nearly $74,419 dollars to provide its water and sewage services to its residents. Unfortunately, the city only brings in $60,000 to $62,000 in water payments, a $12,000 to $15,000 difference that the city is currently subsidizing from the general fund. This situation has led to the Council’s proposal to raise the minimum monthly payment on Marion residential water bills by $10.22 and increase the rate on an additional 1000 gallons (past the 2000-gallon minimum) to the price Marion pays to treat it, $2.50.

“They’re trying to keep it as low as they can,” said Aubrey Smitherman, the hearing’s moderator and employee of Veolia Water, the multi-national company Marion has contracted to operate its water service. “All they’re asking for is to break even…from 1997 to now, there’s been a lot of inflation, and every other bill has gone up except the water bill. You just have to change with the times.”

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That explanation wasn’t good enough for many residents in attendance, who argued that the increase was too steep for families and others living on a fixed income.

“For a family of four, we’re looking at an average increase of 17 or 18 dollars on the water bill,” said Albert Turner Jr., Perry County Commissioner and current candidate for the state House of Representatives. “That’s more than $210 a year. Families in a city like Marion cannot afford that.”

“I think the water bill is high enough,” said one resident. “It’s already $35 to $40 whether I use it or not.”

Several residents voiced their agreement, including one who noted the contrast between the wealth of Veolia, which owns its own private jet, and Marion residents.

“They’ve got a Learjet,” he said, “and we’re still riding around on mules.”

“Believe me,” Smitherman responded, “I’ve never flown on the jet.” Smitherman addressed a number of questions and comments on behalf of the council, including why the cost of treating of the city’s water surpass the treatment costs across Perry County or in neighboring municipalities.

“Marion sits on top of a vein of water with a very high iron content,” he explained. “Wells in the county or in Uniontown are outside that vein and do not have the same issue with iron the water in Marion does.”

When asked by Turner why the city had no plans to drill a well outside the vein, in order to lower those treatment costs, Smitherman expressed sympathy but said the funding and construction timetable was simply not feasible.

“I would love to build a new well four miles out and get out of this vein,” he said, “but it would be three years before you could get a drop of that water into Marion.”

Turner insisted, however, that the Council needed to address the cost of treatment.

“You say this is due to inflation,” he told the Council. “But in two or three years you’re still going to have inflation, and you’ll just have to raise the rates again. The real problem is the cost of treatment. This is a band-aid…you say ‘this is the only way we know how to do it,’ but this is not the only way we know how to do it. The Council needs a more economically viable solution.”

To that end, Turner suggested subsidizing the $15,000 monthly deficit with a budget cut until grants, such as those potentially provided by the federal Department of Homeland Security, provided for a new iron-free well and the city’s treatment costs dropped.

Afterwards, Councilman Corin Harrison said that Turner’s plan was not practical, saying that not only was there was no room in Marion’s budget for cuts, but that state policy forbids the city from subsidizing water costs.

“You’re not supposed to take money out of the general fund,” he said. “It’s what the state calls an Enterprise Account Fund, and it has to pay for itself. It’s got to break even.”

Harrison added that damages to the city’s wells and sewage plant, some of it coming in the wake of Hurricane Ivan, had already cost the city $125,000 it has yet to repay, with more repairs still needed.

“To keep water and sewer running for all of 2005,” Harrison said, “we’re going to have to spend in the neighborhood of $400,000.”

For now, though, the Council and their constituents are just worrying about the hike, with the final vote looming over Monday evening’s Council meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at City Hall.

“All we’re doing is trying to do is break even,” Marion mayor Anthony J. Long said during the hearing. “We don’t want to do any more that that.”