Utility commission proposes 15 percent water rate increase, promises an improvement of infrastructure and safety

Water rates may increase by 15 percent for London residents within the coming months. The London City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance establishing reconnect fees and establishing water and sewer rates on Monday evening, it would still need to be approved on a second reading to go into effect.

Steve Baker, superintendent of the London Utility Commission, proposed the increase during Monday evening's city council meeting in order to pay for replacing aging water lines and update the water treatment plant.

"We have two categories of capital infrastructure that we really need to prioritize," said Baker. "What we're asking for is a 15 percent increase in water only. We are not asking for any changes to sewer rates."

The sewage rate will remain the same, Baker stressed. He added that the 15 percent increase in water rates will generate approximately $250,000. This money, Baker said will primarily be dedicated to the next five-to-ten years of infrastructural changes.

"It allows us to replace aging infrastructure. We own about 100 miles of water lines in the city. Most of that is in really good shape," said Baker. "But, as with everything, we have to keep investing in it. We have about eight miles within that 100 miles that's in critical need of replacement."

Meanwhile, the city's water treatment plant is 20 years old. Baker said while the plant is still in good shape, it's becoming less efficient and costing the utility commission more to maintain. He said a more optimized water treatment plant will save the commission money in the long-run and be safer for both water treatment plant employees and the community.

"Currently, the predominant method for treating water is by employing chlorine gas," Baker explained in an interview following the City Council meeting. "Essentially, you purchase gas in large cylinders and you employ that in small dosages to the water as it's being treated and disinfected. That's been the industry standard for most of the country for a long time. The downside to using that method is the safety of the operators and the safety of the community immediately around it."

According to Baker, in the unlikely incident of a chlorine gas leak, it could be dangerous if inhaled in high concentrations. The London Utility Commission moved to a new water purification method called the mixed oxidant method. This method is more efficient at water purification that takes the form of solvent and not a gas, eliminating the risk of gas leaks.

"With the chlorine gas method, we have significant safety measures implemented by OSHA and the EPA and other federal agencies," continued Baker. "There is an expense to remaining compliant with those federal regulations with regard to chlorine gas. If we didn't have to have chlorine gas on the premises, we can reduce significantly the overhead cost of keeping the community and the employees safe -- and in this case, without the reduction of water quality."

Baker assured the council that the water rate increase will eliminate old and unreliable water lines, improve water consistency and quality, reduce damage to city streets and improve fire protection capacity in certain areas. In addition, Baker promised the rates will ultimately produce savings to London Utility Commission customers by reducing maintenance costs.

For the 15 percent water rate increase to go into effect, the London City Council must approve the second reading of its corresponding ordinance in a future reading. The increase will go into effect following that approval.

In other actions, the London City Council:

— Welcomed Sauced: Craft Pizza, Pasta & Salad to London. The restaurant, which opened in Pineville in 2017, will be opening a new location at 202 S. Broad St. The official opening of the London location has yet to be determined.

— Accepted a $129,000 bid for a new fire truck and firefighter equipment. According to the council, the London fire department fire truck is around 33 years old, with the suits and air-packs being three to five generations behind the current standard. The new fire truck will be able to fit more individuals, and the new equipment is promised to be lighter, more heat-resistant and provide more protection from hazardous fumes.

— Announced plans for the Magee property, which the London Tourism and Convention Commission purchased off of Fourth Street. This property will join the wellness park, offering hiking/biking trails and more storage for city equipment and decorations.

— Announced a window for the official acquisition of Levi Jackson State Park from the state to the city. On Sept. 3, a state transition team and a city transition team will meet to finalize the transfer of ownership. Once the city owns to park, it will be renamed "Levi Jackson Wilderness Road Park."

dcombs@sentinel-echo.com

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