The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 on Monday, Dec. 16 to approve the organization’s 2020 budget, which includes a planned multi-year rate hike.
MAWSS Commissioner Barbara Drummond was the lone dissenting vote on the budget. Reached after the meeting, she said she had several issues with the budget.
“I thought retirees should’ve been paid more,” she said. “I’m OK with a rate increase for one year, but not multiple years.”
The system had previously proposed a change in its fee structure from a declining block, where less was paid per unit as more units are used to a uniform rate structure. However, after meeting with some of its largest users — those entities that use between 2 million and 10 million gallons per month — the system decided to keep the declining block rate in place for those users for another year and, instead, charge a capital improvement fee, which would result in a 19 percent increase in rates for the system’s largest users, MAWSS Director Charles Hyland said.
The board would then review the effects of these large-scale users on the system for a year before determining if getting rid of the declining block scale would benefit MAWSS, he said.
The capital improvement fee would be based on the size of the meter, Hyland said. This means the average residential user would see less than a $2 per month increase to water bills.
The board also approved a 3 percent sewer rate increase, as part of the 2020 budget. The infrastructure fee and the sewer fee increase combined would result in an increase of $2.91 per month for the average residential user of about 5,000 gallons. The average bill would thus increase from $60.75 per month to $63.66 per month.
The increased rates will be used to replace infrastructure and pay for increasing maintenance costs as the roughly 2,000 miles each of water and sewer pipes in the system reach the end of their useful life, Hyland said.
“The goal is to be proactive,” Hyland told commissioners before the vote. “We want to try to address issues before they become failures, like other areas of the country are dealing with.”
He said the increases would help MAWSS target issues like rainy day sewer overflows and other problems caused by the system’s aging infrastructure. Hyland said 40 percent of the city’s current sewer pipes are over 50 years of age and were not designed for a heavy intake of water. As the area is inundated by various rain storms, the sewage mixes with the water and overloads the system.
To help combat this issue, MAWSS has completed construction of a stormwater attenuation basin (SWAB) on Halls Mill Road. It is designed to redirect sewage and stormwater to a system of basin for storage until the system’s functions can be normalized. Since the SWAB has been in use, Hyland said, the area around it has not seen sewer overflows caused by stormwater.
The system is currently renovating an 8 million gallon stormwater attenuation tank (SWAT) near Three Mile Creek, which will cost $3 million in 2020. Hyland said the system is currently looking to acquire property near Eslava Creek to build a SWAT there as well.
In addition, MAWSS plans to spend $68 million on various construction projects, which are all slated to begin next year.
Future rate hikes could be as follows: a 6.5 percent increase in 2021; a 4 percent increase in 2022; and a 4 percent increase in 2023.
This increase follows a 5 percent rate increase last year, which was preceded by five straight years of 5 percent increases, starting in 2013, Hyland has previously told reporters. The increase would go into effect on Wednesday, Jan. 1.
The 2020 budget proposes an increase of more than $9 million in revenue from $111 million to more than $120 million. The majority of the revenue increase comes from the sewer rate increases from $62.9 million in 2019 to $70.2 million in 2020. MAWSS also expects an increase in sewer line connection fees in the coming year from $197,000 to $286,641.
On the expense side, MAWSS is anticipating an increase of more than $7 million in debt service payments and transfers, from $48.5 million to $56 million.
In other business, the board heard about a repair to a water main failure across the Mobile River. The failure on the east end of the main in November follows the failure on the west end of the main in August. In both cases, divers came in to fix the leak, although neither is completely fixed, but both are manageable.
The main in question is a 16-inch redundant line to help supplement a larger, 20-inch main. The line, installed in 1975 will be replaced in 2020. The system also consists of a 4-inch cast iron main installed in 1941 through the Bankhead Tunnel.
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