Lenoir may raise utility rates to pay for sewage repairs

May. 16, 2013 @ 01:48 PM

Lenoir residents could see an increase in water and sewer rates over the next year as the city prepares to sink millions of dollars into a sewage treatment plant that has come under federal scrutiny for environmental violations in recent years

City officials are considering raising the sewer rate by 4 percent, or slightly more than 85 cents per month, as a way to meet requirements to receive a $600,000 grant from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund to go toward the $3.8 million cost of renovating the Gunpowder Creek treatment plant in Hudson. They also have proposed a 1.8 percent increase, or slightly more than 40 cents for 5,000 gallons of water per month, in water payments.

The city’s proposed 2013-14 utility budget initially called for smaller rate increases to keep up with inflation. But officials on early Wednesday decided to seek an increase of an additionsal 1.8 sewer to ensure the city secures the grant, which requires utility rates to reflect a certain portion of a municipality’s median income.

“They don’t want to subsidize a community with a grant whose utility rates are too low,” assistant city manager and finance director Danny Gilbert said, adding that even after the increase the city would have the third-lowest utility rates in the area, behind Valdese and Morganton. Residents here pay the lowest water rates in the vicinity, $22 per month for 5,000 gallons.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency slapped the treatment plant with more than two dozen federal violations, including for high concentrations of ammonia in its solid waste, leaking pipes, an outdated computer processing system and several other mechanical issues, said Monte Wall, superintendent of the city’s Wastewater Treatment Division.

“A lot of things have gone bad,” he said.

The plant was built in the mid-1970s, and the city increased its capacity in the mid-1990s. It processes about 1 million gallons of sewage every day, Wall said. 

The city also operates the Lower Creek sewage treatment facility in Lenoir, which processes about 2.6 million gallons of sewage a day.  That one, Wall noted, “is in really good shape.”

Public works officials have since made “numerous repairs” to the Gunpowder Creek plant, Wall said, including resealing lines and patching leaks. But “we still need to make more upgrades to make it more reliable,” he said.

Construction at the facility could begin as early as late next year, Wall said. The city must meet federal standards for at least a year before it is removed from the watch list.