How Did We Get Here And How Do We Get Out?? A Summary Of Purcellville’s Sewer Debt And Strategic Solutions
– By Kwasi Fraser, Mayor of Purcellville
Many of our fellow citizens are baffled by the proposed increase in our already high water and sewer rates, and not just about the increase that was proposed for the Fiscal Year 2016 but also about the proposed increases over the next nine years. This quote from one of our citizens to a council member sums up the shock and frustration of many, “You mean to tell me if I’m still living in Purcellville ten years from now I could have a water bill for over $600 dollars.” Well, if we continue with yearly compounded increases, a $600 bill will become a reality, but there are alternative strategies. Before presenting alternative solutions to address our water and sewer rates, I owe it to our citizens to at least explain the situation.
In 2008, the town council approved the upgrades and expansion of Purcellville’s Basham Simms Wastewater Treatment Facility. The upgrades and expansion were to address the following:
Compliance with the Department of Environmental Quality 2005 Chesapeake Bay Clean Air and Water Act mandate on nutrient limits.
Future anticipated growth of Purcellville resulting in increasing demand for wastewater treatment.
The upgrades and expansion totaled an estimated $30.5 million, with $24.9 million from a Virginia Resources Authority Bond, $5.2 million from a Water Quality Improvement Fund Grant, $286,400 from a Bank of America Bond, and $105,500 from cash.
As shown in Table 1, prior to the upgrades and expansion to the Basham Simms Wastewater Treatment Facility in 2010, the treatment capacity was 1 million gallons per day (MGD) with average actual treatment of 504,000 gallons per day (GD) or 50 percent of the total treatment capacity at that time. At completion of the plant in 2010, the treatment capacity increased to 1.5 MGD with average actual treatment of 528,000 GD. In 2014, with an estimated population of 7,975 residents, the average actual treatment was 601,000 GD, which was just 40 percent of the total treatment capacity.
The fifth column on Table 1 shows how many more treated gallons per day the plant can support before requiring additional upgrade or expansion. This further illustrates how much population growth the existing plant can support before needing an upgrade or expansion.
In 2014, with an estimated population of 7,975, along with business and institutional users generating 601,000 GD treatment, the plant could have treated an additional 500,000 GD before requiring an upgrade. This is the reason why some individuals estimate that our wastewater treatment plant can easily support all of the surrounding smaller towns whose combined population is less than 2,500 individuals with a smaller business and institutional base.
This brings us to our current state. With the combined water and sewer debt of $41.6 million, as shown in Table 2, and not having enough users to consume the significant excess capacity at the wastewater facility, our estimated 2015 population of 8,200 residents, schools, and businesses are left to service that debt.
In our fiscal year 2016 budget workshops, two of our council members strongly advocated increasing the water rate by 3 percent and the sewer rate by 5 percent. Their reasoning was that the decreases that were made last year set us back and the increases will bring us back in line and enable us to ensure more funds will be available to address the future Utility Enterprise Debt Service including the balloon payment in 2021 as shown in Figure 1.
Our consultant, based on their water and sewer rate models, recommended that we make no increases in Fiscal Year 2016, but a 3 percent increase in water rates for each of the next nine years, a 5 percent increase in sewer rates in the next three years and 4 percent in each of the subsequent six years. I agreed with our consultant not to increase the rate this year, to give our citizens and businesses a break from the prior years of significant increases in water and sewer, while implementing initiatives to bring in outside revenue to service the debt.
One such initiative is the pilot program to sell our excess water to out-of-town companies, which I anticipate will result in $130,000 in revenue over the next 12 months. My goal was to use this additional revenue to go towards both water and sewer funds, but our accounting policy will not allow for any of that money to go towards the sewer fund since it is generated from just the sale of water. Due to that accounting restriction the revenue will be going towards the water debt alone and as such I voted for no increase in water and a 5 percent in sewer. I firmly believe we should not pursue any reduction if there is not a clear way to pay for it.
The 5 percent increase in sewer goes back to not being allowed to use any of the estimated $130,000 of new water revenue towards the sewer fund and the significant debt burden from our sewer plant and its excess capacity. My commitment to the citizens of Purcellville is that we will pursue initiatives to generate new revenue sources to reduce our significant sewer debt. One such strategy that is being evaluated is the lease or sale of underperforming real estate assets in and around the vicinity of the waste water treatment plant. This initiative may result in significant revenue that will go a long way in reducing our debt and relieving our taxpayers from the burden of substantial rate increases.