Morgantown City Council Approves Rate Increases for Infrastructure Improvements

9 Feb

The waste water treatment plant in Star City is well over 30 years old. It was designed to last just 25 years and the equipment has become obsolete by today’s standards. To improve the plant, Morgantown City Council approved Morgantown Utility Board‘s (MUB) proposal to increase to resident’s water and sewer rates at a recent City Council meeting.

The increases will provide an additional $10.5 million in combined revenue ($3.5 from water, $7 from sewer). To achieve this water rates will increase by 33%, while sewer costs will jump 87.5%. Councilwoman Nancy Ganz told me it’s simply the cost of doing business and more than just the water will be affected if nothing is done.

“There is no choice. If we do nothing, if we have raw sewage going into the river many things will happen. Our economic development will end, it won’t smell very good, our tourism will end. Third thing is we’ll start getting fined by the state and federal government, so it will cost more not to remediate,” Ganz said.

The treatment plant has a current maximum capacity of 12 million gallons of treated water per day. In 2011, the plant nearly reached its limit as levels reached 11.7 million gallons. The proposed expansion will up its capacity to 21 million gallons per day. This will ensure overflows are far less likely to occur during wet years or increased use. And if the updates aren’t made, the Environmental Protection Agency could issue fines of up to $30,000 per day until the changes are made.

Another project that will be funded by the new rates will be a second Cobun Creek dam. It will just outside of town, further upstream from the first that sits off of Mississippi Street. With a growing population comes the need to have reserve water in case of an emergency like the one we’ve seen in Flint, Michigan, or the one that occurred just a few counties away in 2014 when chemicals spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. That spill left up to 300,000 West Virginians across nine counties without potable water.

The new dam, to be built on property MUB purchased in the 1950s, will add an additional 120 million gallons of reserve water just outside the city. This equates to a 30-day supply, a full month longer than the current 3-day supply reservoir provided by the first Cobun Creek dam.

“There are threats all along the (Monongahela) River, possible leakage threats and so-forth, so what we need is to have a certain amount of days supply per population available as an alternative source,” Councilwoman Ganz told me. “So part of the rates for the water will be generated by the fact that we need to build another reservoir to accommodate the need for clean water if there are any threats to the river.”

These threats come in the form of designed overflows mentioned earlier. Morgantown uses a combined sewer overflow system (CSO) that combines runoff stormwater, whether from rain or snowmelt, with wastewater. When water levels get too high and exceed capacity, the untreated excess water overflows into the Monongahela River. There are 40 CSOs along the Mon River where overflows may occur. In 2004, the EPA told the city of Morgantown to eliminate these CSOs, but the town has since only tried to minimize them. (But that’s another story).

But higher prices will always come with questions. Many Morgantown residents live paycheck-to-paycheck and may not have the disposable income to account for these extra monthly costs. Westover resident Charles Sell told me he believes the proposal constitutes as “rate shock”. 

“That’s something that the Public Service Commission has brought up involving MUB in the past,” Sell said. “It’s going to be tough on people on fixed incomes to pay those new rates.”

A typical way to avoid rate shock is to implement lower rate changes over a longer period of time. But with possible fines and leakages, MUB and council members believe the project needs to move along as quickly as possible.

MUB General Manager Tim Ball told WAJR-Morgantown AM that proposals for the water system upgrades, including the new reservoir, will cost about $31 million while the new sewage system updates will cost around $90 million.

“We think that our rates today are clearly a bargain and we think our rates even under the proposed increase will remain a bargain. The only reason that percentage increase sounds so large is because it’s calculated based on our extremely low rates,” Ball said.

The improvements must be paid for somehow, and that burden falls upon the tax payers. Yes, $21 added to resident’s bills will be difficult for a lot of families in Morgantown, but rates will still be low relative to the rest of the state. It could be more costly in the long run if improvements aren’t made now. Clean water isn’t something that can be taken for granted and the city needs to be proactive, not reactive.

The new rates will go into effect this July.

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