Mayor on Duty

A recent letter-to-the editor raised questions about our water and sewer department policies and pending rate increase. The writer implied that I didn’t create an accurate picture of the rate increase, and that I withheld information about Highlands having the third highest water and sewer rates in the state.

Let me first address several inaccurate statements and resulting questions. To the writer, we do not have 1,500 customers outside the city limits. Of our 2,883 water customers only 198 live outside the town limits and only one is on sewer. We have 1,240 town customers on both water and sewer.

The double rates for water customers outside town limits was questioned as a fairness issue. It  is fair, considering  the Town of Highlands taxpayers built the water and sewer system. It is also a deal for the 198 customers outside town. Decades ago developers and residents in these areas entered the double rate agreement, mainly because they couldn’t provide water by drilling wells. Having city water has been a benefit for these outside town customers by maintaining home values, fire protection, and insuring access to safe and thoroughly tested water.

The town took over the waterlines to several of these outlying areas decades ago as a part of the agreement. We maintain these lines, and replace them just as if they were in town. For example, last year we replaced a failing 50-year-old waterline outside the city. It cost the town $375,000 to put in a state of the art 6-inch-waterline that serves about 13 homes. Was that a fair deal to those residents who pay $70 a month for water? Will the town ever recoup that capital expenditure through usage fees that basically operate the system from year to year?

Despite a small customer base,  Highlands has spent millions of dollars well beyond operations costs to build and maintain the water and sewer system. This year about $600,000 will be spent to complete the water tank on Satulah, and $875,000 to replace the aging waterline on Split Rail. Another $200,000 is earmarked to rework a water plant filter and another million will be spent in the coming years to add a new filter. In any given budget, like this year, $200,000 can be spent just to replace critical pumps and parts in the water and sewer system. We also maintain 24/7 service to all areas.

Yes, to some degree we are on the higher end of the rate structure, but consider our unique situation. The state report that the letter references cautions about making costs comparisons  between municipalities.  We are a small market, isolated, seasonal community that provides services normally found in larger municipalities. The report also states high water and sewer rates are not necessarily bad. If municipalities continually undercharge actual operating and maintenance costs, the cumulative effect is large debt service to upgrade plants and distribution systems. We do not have such debt because we periodically adjust rates to pay as we go.

Finally, the letter questions the fairness of minimal charges and the fact we do not suspend those fees for seasonal residents. The town could not operate the system based solely on demand. Our water and sewer staff are licensed professionals. We can’t employ these crucial workers based on seasonal  demands. Even the idea that seasonal folks go away for long periods of time is a fading notion. Rather than being seasonal, more and more of our residents are in continuous transition between residences. These folks want immediate service upon arrival, and minimal fees insure that availability.

Also, let me clarify the operational plan of our fiber optic network referenced in the letter. The town will not control the network programming. Our private partner and providers will operate the network and determine costs. The town’s interest will be operating a smart grid that will enable us to efficiently manage the utility system.

Pat Taylor, Town of Highlands Mayor

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