Court questions utility rate hike, employee bonus


Several board members and the manager of the county’s utility district stood before the fiscal court Tuesday night to answer questions about a rate increase and a generous holiday pay policy.

Manager Lenny Stone told the court about numerous projects the Columbia-Adair Utilities District is working on, reaching from Breeding to Knifley and from Gradyville to the Russell County line. Stone said all projects are taken into consideration with a new proposed rate increase.

Most homeowners on the water system will face a 29 percent rate increase, with minimum water bills going from $15.35 to $19.90.

Stone said the increase is the third in 14 years since he has been with the utility district and the rate is based on guidelines set by USDA Rural Development. The Public Service Commission must approve the rates.

Stone also addressed an issue that is drawing complaints­–a Christmas incentive received by all the district employees.

Stone said district employees receive an annual Christmas incentive that equals 100 hours of pay. He said the practice has been in place for at least 18 years that he is aware of.

Employees did not receive a pay increase in 2011 and received a 3 percent increase in 2010. Utility board member Robert Flowers said the district has kept salaries relatively low and the incentive plan is fair.

While there were compliments for the district’s work and its employees, County Judge Executive Ann Melton said when she agreed to the merger between the city and county utilities she was told county residents would not have to pay “to fix the city lines that were neglected for years and years and years.”

Flowers said the city began replacing lines six to eight years ago and was in the process of making corrections when the merger took place.

“Nothing had really been neglected it was a matter of when you could get to it,” he said.

Several magistrates commented on the issue. Sammy Baker said the county has to weigh what services it can offer with the extra taxes it would require. Daryl Flatt said he believes the 100-hour bonus to be excessive. Billy Rowe said he believes the increase is closer to 30 percent than 20 percent and also questioned the quality of the county’s water. He lives near the water plant and said his water is not drinkable.

Stone was also asked about plans to build a new office and said the plan is currently put on hold. The district purchased a piece of property near Wal-Mart for $250,000.

In response to another question, Stone said the district has about $6.7 million in current debt, took on around $2.2 million in debt from the city and will add another $1.5 to $2 million in bonding for the new projects. In addition, when a merger with the water plant is complete, the district will be responsible for the water plant debt of $6.9 million. The district is currently making those payments now, he added.

Stone invited the court and the public to attend district board meetings and said he would like to return more often to court meetings to keep them informed on the district’s progress. This district’s board meets today and every second Thursday at 4 p.m. at the utility office on Grant Lane.

By Sharon Burton

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