Council addresses increases

Alexis Barker, News Edtior


Several Newcastle residents approached the Newcastle City Council on Sept. 5 to discuss their frustrations with recent rate increases for water and sewer use. 


According to some of the residents in attendance, their bills had doubled after the rate increases went into effect and they were concerned about the lack of notification from city officials. 


The council began discussing rate increases in open meetings in June, however, and it was reported by the News Letter Journal on at least three different occasions. 


In the July 26 story “Council approves increases,”  the NLJ reported that sewer rates for customers in city limits will be $21.53 per month for the first 2,000 gallons or less upon adoption of the rate increase. 


Anything over 2,000 gallons will be prorated on the amount furnished at $9 per 1,000 gallons. 


Rates for users outside of city limits were not included in the updated ordinance, despite being included in previous ordinances. An amendment to the ordinance, added on Aug. 14 on second reading, increased rates for customers outside of city limits to $27.50 for the first 2,000 gallons and $11 per 1,000 gallons after the initial 2,000 gallons. 


Sewer charges are based on the amount of water furnished by the city per month to each service outlet, according to the ordinance. 


Under the previous pay system, residents paid a base rate for minimum usage (2,000 gallons) and were then assessed under a couple of different rates for usage that exceeds the minimum. 


In addition to approving the amended ordinance on second reading, the council also approved the water rate increase ordinance on second reading. 


New rates are $19.50 per month for the first 2,000 gallons of water used for users inside city limits. Anyone using over 2,000 gallons a month will pay $7 per 1,000 gallons per month, prorated by use. 

For users outside of city limits, new rates will be a flat rate charge of $11 per 1,000 gallons. 


Garbage rates will also increase in the near future after the council directed County Attorney Dublin Hughes to draft an ordinance amending garbage rates. 


The council approved both ordinances on third reading during their Aug. 21 meeting, and legal notices were published in the newspaper and online announcing the changes. 


After receiving the first round of bills with the new rates, residents approached the council on Sept. 5 to express frustration with the lack of notification from the city on the rate increase and the drastic nature of the increase for those who use more water. 


Councilman Tyrel Owens explained to the residents that the city is required to operate utilities, or enterprise accounts, like a business. He said that the city had been operating at a low rate for years and infrastructure was in desperate need of replacement. 


“This has been kicked down the road for years and years,” he said, noting that he understands that the residents feel the increase was “dropped on them all of the sudden.” 


While Owens acknowledged the hardship the increase may put on families, he stressed the need for the city to address the problems with the water and sewer systems to provide safe drinking water and a place for waste to go. 


Owens also explained that the city has loans that need paid and grant matches to pay for projects the city is currently undertaking. 


Council members were asked why the rates were not increased gradually and why the city did not do more to inform the public about the increases before they received their bill. 


Councilman Tom Voss said that the city did not do this deliberately to hurt the public, and the council acknowledged that the city could have done more to notify the public but they placed much of the blame on previous councils.


Mayor Pam Gualtieri noted that rate increases had been discussed previously and that the council hadn’t approved them because they “didn’t want to upset citizens.”


She said that the decision was made by the current council based on what was needed to get the work done, and fix what previous city leaders did by not addressing or preparing for infrastructure replacements. 


Paying for the infrastructure replacements is costly, according to public works supervisor Greg Stumpff, and the increases were necessary to match grants and to pay loans. He said that the council could kick the problem down the road, but that at some point a council has to increase the rates and fix the problems. 


“To apply for a grant, you have to afford to pay it back.  … They (grantors) look at what we are charging and if it is not a certain rate they say, ‘No way,” Councilwoman Ann McColley said.

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