Consultant Advises Berlin Needs New Water Meters, Updated Rates

BERLIN– The town needs new water meters, an asset management plan and an updated rate structure to get its water and wastewater costs on track, according to a consultant.

Jean Holloway of the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project Inc. (SERCAP) presented elected officials in Berlin Nov. 1 with a long-awaited water and wastewater rate analysis. She said new meters would help the town but that it would also need to restructure its rates, plan for capital improvements and conduct a water audit.

“It may not be what you want to hear but it’s what you need to hear,” she said.

Holloway said that while the town didn’t have any debt in its water fund, it also didn’t have any reserves.

“Reserves should be looked at as a cost of operation rather than just something that’s nice to have,” she said.

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The town also needs to reduce its non-revenue water. While some water loss is inevitable, she said the town’s non-revenue water — the water that is produced and treated but for which no revenue is received — was 25% of its production. That equates to more than $200,000 a year in revenue the town is not collecting.

There are two factors contributing to the 25% non-revenue water. Old meters often under-register. In addition, customers are not billed for usage until they exceed 1,000 gallons.

Jamey Latchum, the town’s stormwater and wastewater superintendent, said new meters would be a huge help to the town, as the latest technology tracks water usage better, but that they came at a high cost. Holloway said the benefits would outweigh the price, however.

“They’ll pay for themselves in probably less than a year,” she said.

She added that at some point the town wouldn’t be able to get parts to repair its current inventory of meters.

“It’s just going to continue to cost you more and more,” she said.

Latchum added that the town’s water issues impacted the water fund as well as the wastewater fund.

“If you don’t fix water you’re not going to fix sewer,” he said. “Your water’s your cash register. How much water you use is how sewer is billed.”

While the meters are a problem, Holloway said the town also needed to address its rate structure, as it currently was inefficient at recovering costs. In addition, the town needs to begin building a capital reserve fund in order to allow for the repair and replacement of equipment. Latchum said the town’s infrastructure was old, as much of it dated back to the 1940s and 1950s.

“Stuff is going to wear out,” he said. “I feel it’s met and exceeded its life expectancy.”

He added that another challenge was rising costs. He said the price on some of the chemicals the town used, for example, had gone up four times in the last five months.

“It’s out of my control,” he said.

Officials thanked Holloway for the presentation. Several pointed out the town’s American Rescue Plan Act funding could help with meter replacement, though that was just one of the steps the town needed to consider.

“This is a multi-pronged approach to a situation that’s been going on decades,” Councilman Jack Orris said.

Councilman Dean Burrell said the presentation made it clear the town needed to make some changes.

“Unless we get a handle on commodity loss, which is water loss, we’re just spinning our wheels,” he said, adding that the town needed to look at its rate structure to ensure everyone was treated equitably.

Councilman Jay Knerr agreed that the information had been an eye opener.

“I’m confident we can get back on track,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.