BLOWING ROCK — Getting town services to pay for themselves on a stand alone basis so they are not subsidized by revenue from property taxes and sales taxes is the mission, but when it comes to water and sewer it may take the Town of Blowing Rock some time to catch up.
One of the things that town manager Shane Fox and his staff recognized upon his being hired in May of 2019 was a disconnect in the town’s billing for water and sewer vs. the operating expenses for providing the service, as well as needed capital spending for water plant upgrades and water and sewer line replacement.
“Somewhat ironically, it was COVID-19 that allowed us to do a more comprehensive study of our residential and commercial usage, the revenue being produced on a more granular level, and what our capital needs are,” said Fox. “What we found was that the usage of water was actually declining from year to year as people responsibly installed appliances, faucets and sinks, and bathroom facilities that are more efficient. At the same time, though, the infrastructure to supply that water was costing more from ongoing operations, including current repairs to the system to maintain the service. Then you have the looming capital needs for replacing lines and making significant capital improvements to the water plant. Water and sewer revenue should be paying for all of that, not drawing so much from property tax and sales tax revenue going into the general fund.”
So part of the changes implemented July 1 are to get the water service to be more self sufficient. Another objective was for it to be fairer vs. the water being consumed.
“What we found was that 70 percent of our users are not coming close to the 5,000 gallon minimum usage threshold. A 3,000 gallon breakpoint made more sense. It didn’t seem fair for the 1,500 gallon user or even 3,000 gallon user to be paying the same amount of money as someone using almost twice as much or more water.”
Fox said that there are two distinct groups of water users in Blowing Rock. First there are the residential and retail store users, then there are the restaurants and lodging users.
“Collectively, the residents and retail shops use the most water,” said Fox, “but individually, the restaurants and lodging businesses are our largest customers. Both groups use significantly more in the summer and fall than in the winter and early spring.”
Even with the changes in billing and the relatively small increases to the rates, Fox pointed out that Blowing Rock remains well behind its peers in its rates.
“Any time we consider changing rates for services, it is important to make sure we are not out of line with our peers, and especially our neighboring peers. We went to $51.70 bi-monthly for 3,000 gallons of water and $51.70 bi-monthly for sewer. Beech Mountain, by comparison, is $41 monthly for 3,000 gallons, so $82 each month for water and $82 each month for sewer. So when you look at it from that perspective, we are providing the same service at almost a 37 percent discount to our neighboring municipality.”
Blowing Rock’s changes don’t come without some concerns. Blowing Rock resident Greg King stressed that with these changes it becomes even more important for the meters to be read regularly and accurately.
“I don’t disagree with the premise for the rate changes, but lowering the minimum from 5,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons means it is just that much more important to get accurate readings and to do it as close as possible over the same intervals,” said King. “If we were only charged for the water being used, this would all go away. But we are not. We are required to pay for a minimum and are allocated a certain amount of water per billing cycle. But if our usage is greater than that allocation, then we pay a premium. I understand that, and it makes sense, but fine-tuning the average usage by lowering the allocation number means that you have to also be more precise in reading meters accurately, and at regular intervals. By introducing this kind of granularity, those meters have to be read each and every billing cycle.”