By Erika Webb
Residents of Country Village in Orange City continue to fume over their significantly higher -- as of July -- water and sewer bills.
At its regular meeting Jan. 14, residents vented some more to the City Council.
Barbara Martin Culet reminded council members that though the room was filled with disgruntled Country Village residents "last time," there are still no answers.
At a workshop Dec. 10, the council listened to Country Village resident spokesman and former Orange City Councilman Jimmy Barker, who wanted to know why he and his neighbors were subject to an "exorbitant" rate increase.
Mayor Tom Laputka explained there would be no question and answer dialogue between the council and Mr. Barker during his 30-minute presentation. He also noted that since it was a workshop as opposed to a regular business meeting, no final decisions could be made.
In 2012, Orange City hired Maitland-based Public Resources Management Group Inc. to conduct a study of the city's water and sewer rates.
Discrepancies were found.
City Manager Jamie Croteau explained the study revealed varying rates throughout the area; some residents were paying less than others for the same utilities.
Country Village was one community in which residents were being charged at an extremely low rate, she said.
The overall rate increase -- to $3.33 per 1,000 gallons for water and $6.49 for wastewater -- was deemed necessary for long overdue repairs to the city's water and sewage pipes, which are estimated to cost more than $11 million over the next five years, according to the city.
Interim Public Works Director Ken Hooper described the city's water and sewage system as "old" and "worn out."
The system in Country Village is integrated into the city's "failing" main water system and relies on that system in order to function, he said, noting that work in Country Village will result in "major costs."
Simply flushing the system is not a viable long-term solution, he said, and the pipes will have to be replaced.
Mr. Barker wanted to know why Volusia County charges $4.03 per 1,000 gallons for wastewater treatment, but Orange City only pays the County $3.43.
Orange City pays 86 percent of the full cost to the county through an interlocal agreement, Orange City Finance Director Christine Davis said in a telephone interview.
"We don't process any sewer," Ms. Davis said. "We have lift stations and infrastructure -- which we have to maintain -- to get (sewage) to the county for further processing."
Mr. Hooper explained the county's rates have increased via the annual Consumer Price Index adjustment while the city's rates have not been adjusted since 2006.
Mr. Barker pointed out while the city is raising water rates, $85,000 is being spent on dog park restrooms and the city is considering the purchase of two lots for $45,000 and $48,000.
"What about the deplorable condition of University and French avenues from (U.S.) 17/92 to the school?" he said, positing they are in the same condition they were in 1974.
He suggested using the contingency fund to fix the water lines.
"We want some relief, if not all relief, of the sewer increase," he said, adding residents can tolerate a water increase, but not one for sewer.
"You have raised the sewer and water rates for Country Village and all other residents," Mr. Barker said. "Country Village rates have increased at a minimum of 54 percent."
"You have created severe hardships on the many residents and no excuse will be accepted," he added, demanding that the council "suspend the increases without any delay."
City Manager Croteau explained the rate study was done to determine what rates need to be charged to maintain the water system and which application of rates is most fair to utilities customers.
The water system subsidizes the sewer system, causing a revenue reduction, which led to the water system's deterioration, she said, noting the utility does not receive general fund revenue and is supposed to be completely customer funded.
She reminded residents the rate increase for improvements also is necessary for the city to pass water quality tests, one of which it failed in 2013.
The city's base rates for sewer were increased to equal the county's, Ms. Croteau explained, noting costs associated with its wastewater system maintenance belong to the city.
She reminded residents there were public hearings prior to the adoption of the new rates in May.
Notices were sent to residents in April and May, and workshops were conducted April 9 and May 28 prior to the May 28 City Council meeting at which the rate increase was adopted by a 6-1 vote.
Ms. Martin Culet said she is appalled at the increase.
"I'm even more ashamed that I didn't know anything about it," she told the council at the meeting Jan. 14.
She said she has been at the last two meetings and plans to continue attending.
"So I'm watching you," she told the council.
"Our water bill went up from $80 to $124 and we went through the bother to have the water department come out and take out the meter for watering our lawns, which costs $8 a month whether you used it or not," she said.
Orange City resident and former Councilman Jeff Allebach said he's sympathetic to anyone dealing with rising costs in a tough economy, but the city is not picking on Country Village.
"The folks at Country Village had sewer service supplemented by every other Orange City resident for 20 years," Mr. Allebach said. "It's not fair for the young family on Park Avenue to be paying more to subsidize them. Neither the folks in Country Village or the young couple are flush with money."
"We all have to pay for good, clean water," he added.
Ms. Davis said there isn't one particular answer to the question of why Country Village residents paid lower rates than others for many years.
"There were different rate studies before different councils," she explained. "This council looked at the Revenue Rate Sufficiency Study. The new rates have been in effect for seven months and there is no indication that we're going to make any changes."