The Town of Crawford is just over $16,000 away from being in the red in its water fund, Public Works Director Bruce Bair told the council last week. "We're not in the hole, but we will be if we don't address this issue," he told trustees.
He asked trustees to be proactive in maintaining healthy fund balances for both the water and sewer funds, as well as the reserve accounts. "The water fund is currently underfunded," he said. "Projections of a deficit are a reality that must be addressed if we are to be good stewards of the town." He offered several proposals to alleviate current budget issues.
The first would raise both water and sewer tap fees to $3,500 each. Tap fees have not been raised since 2005. Those fees are currently $2,500.
A second proposal seeks to raise the fee to $2 per 100 gallons of water purchased at the town's water dispensary. Currently that fee is $1 per 100 gallons.
The third proposal, which generated nearly two hours of discussion, seeks to increase the monthly utility fee by $5. That would mean in-town residential users will pay $25.40 per month while commercial and rural users would see an increase to $28 per month.
The town raised rates just last year by 50 cents. That money was to be earmarked for the water reserve fund, which is supposed to pay for things like capital improvements and repairs. What has been happening, however, is that the money generated by the fee increase has been offsetting the water fund line item. In 2016, water expenses were $71,888, yet income was only $67,920. The difference came from the reserve fund.
The second piece of the rate increase proposal seeks to lower usable gallon limits. Currently, each of the 273 water users can have up to 20,000 gallons of water for their monthly rate during winter months. If they use more, they are billed overage fees; 11 of the total users are currently using more than 20,000 gallons a month.
Trustees discussed lowering that number to 10,000 gallons a month for winter usage, and 15,000 gallons a month for summer usage. There are 251 users who use that amount or less monthly. For a family of four, 6,000 gallons a month is more than adequate for household and minor landscaping needs, Bair said. He said lowering the allowable gallons will put the burden of paying for the water on those who use the majority of it.
Citizen Bob Howard cautioned trustees that the discussion was important, but even more pressing was the lack of a reserve for infrastructure repairs or replacements. "This is the bigger issue," he said.
Right now, said mayor Wanda Gofforth, the big concern is just trying to keep the fund out of the red, but agreed that the council needs to look forward for capital improvements.
The good news, Bair told trustees, is that the Town of Crawford's water and sewer funds are one of the few utilities in the state that have no outstanding debt. There are also water and sewer reserve funds. More good news is that the sewer fund is self-sustaining; at this time, expenses do not exceed revenue.
The bad news, however, is that if the town has to continue to use reserve funds to balance the water fund, the reserves will quickly disappear, and the town will be in trouble when the time comes for major repairs and capital improvements. Even seeking grants could be difficult, Gofforth explained, as many grantors want to see matching funds.
Additionally, Bair asked trustees to clean up and tighten the language in the current water and sewer ordinances. As they read now, someone could interpret that the town is liable for the cost of installation of taps when the intent is, and has historically been, that the cost is the responsibility of the property owner. The ordinances will also be amended to further clarify which portion of the lines are to be paid for by the town and which portions by the property owner in the case of repairs or leaks.
The council will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m., to take comments on all proposals. It is expected to pass the measures that evening, with the changes to take effect immediately.