A request by Asheville City Council to keep water fees flat for residential customers next fiscal year may be too ambitious to fulfill, according to city budget staffers.
During Council’s last scheduled work session for the fiscal year 2023-24 budget on April 11, some members appeared to reverse course on a previous push to freeze residential water fees. On March 28, Council had voted unanimously to delay approval of staff’s water fee recommendations, which would have cost a typical household roughly $43 more per year, and asked the staff to explore other options for raising funds.
Taylor Floyd, Asheville’s budget manager, told Council on April 11 that avoiding the residential rate increases would forgo roughly $2.5 million in revenue. He said that money was required to meet the water system’s growing infrastructure and staffing needs.
Water budget expenditures for the next fiscal year are estimated at $43.47 million, a roughly 7.7% increase over the current budget of about $40.35 million. Beyond increases to basic operating expenses, Floyd explained, that higher figure includes about $1.1 million in service enhancements such as hiring additional maintenance, communications and customer service staff and replacing all 63,000 city water meters with updated technology. The budget also accounts for roughly $700,000 in recommended pay increases, including a 5% across-the-board raise and a $2 hourly bump to overtime pay.
Floyd said a cost-of-service study was underway to help determine future water fee recommendations, but results would not be available until September at the earliest. At that time, he continued, Council could choose to change the rate structure based on the study’s findings. (Residential customers currently pay more than do commercial or industrial users, in some cases more than twice as much for the same amount of water.)
“Because we’re bimonthly billing, any rates and fees that are approved are in effect July 1, but we don’t actually make the increases until September,” added David Melton, the city’s water services director. That would give the city time to make residents aware of any changes, he said.
Council members Antanette Mosley and Maggie Ullman said that they supported city staff’s recommendations to increase residential water fees while waiting on the results of the study. “I’m not comfortable with delaying infrastructure investment,” Ullman said.
Council member Kim Roney, however, pushed back against the increases and said there were options for making up the revenue that the city hadn’t explored.
“There are multiple levers to pull, whether it’s [the] base rate or closing the gap on the commercial rate,” she said. “I still would like to see an option for some sort of phasing that’s in between the ‘We do nothing’ and ‘We do everything’ for this budget cycle.”
Council is expected to vote on whether to approve the water fee increases during its next meeting on Tuesday, April 25