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Utilities Board raises rates

By By BRIAN BLACKLEY
Publisher
Editors Note: This is part 1 of a three part series on Atmore's water and sewage system which is undergoing renovations to make it conform to national guidelines. Look for part 2 in next Sunday's Advance.
Editors Note: This is part 1 of a three part series on Atmore's water and sewage system which is undergoing renovations to make it conform to national guidelines. Look for part 2 in next Sunday's Advance.
Rates for residential sewage customers will climb from the current rate of $5.50 in base charges to a higher rate of $8.50 inside the city limits. For customers who receive service outside the city limits, the sewage charge will increase from $9.50 to $12.50.
Additionally, water customers will see their rates climb one dollar, from $5.50 to $6.50.
According to Tom Wolfe, manager of the Utilities Board, the increases in monthly bills are necessary as the city is forced to overhaul miles of sewage lines that run underneath the streets. Currently, much of the pipe that runs underneath the city is made of clay, and much of it was originally installed more than 50 years ago.
"There are sections of clay pipe that are still carrying sewage for the city that were manufactured and installed in the 1920s," Wolfe said. "Most of the lines date back to the 1950s when they were still made of clay."
Because of the age and composition of the lines, leaks have been noted in the city that require attention, and as federal scrutiny rises in the wake of a federal environmental bill that requires all systems in the nation to be up to snuff in the next 10 years.
For a city like Atmore, with a crumbling sewage structure, costs are astronomical, Wolfe said.
"This is a project that will require millions of dollars in order to bring our system to where it needs to be to meet federal guidelines," he said. "In order to accomplish what we need to get done, we have to do two key things. First we have to get the money we need to make the renovations and second, we have to get an early start on the situation because getting this work done isn't something we can do overnight."
By working with outside companies, Wolfe said, the city can literally open up a street and install a pipe inside of the existing pipes that will seal in place and will save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"This is a technology that will allow us to insert a liner inside the current pipes and it will seal in place," Wolfe said. "This is tremendously cheaper than digging up the streets and installing new pipes, but it is still expensive."
An outside contractor that specializes in sewage and water systems will do the work, Wolfe said.
"After reviewing our options, this is the best and most cost-effective method of getting our sewage system up to par," Wolfe said. "There will still be some sections that are in such shape that we have to do some street work to get them repaired, but all in all, we'll save thousands of dollars by doing it this way."
Wolfe estimates the total costs for the projects that are ongoing to be in the millions.
"This is a massive project and we haven't seen final totals on what this will cost us overall," he said. "Still, with the number of miles of pipe we have and the cost of repairing the sections, it's safe to say it's in the millions."
In order to get the money necessary to make the changes, Wolfe said, the Utilities Board is left with no option but to raise rates.
"This is never something you want to do," Wolfe said. "But there's really no other way that we can absorb this expense without bringing in additional money. And the only way we have to get the money we need is through rate increases."
According to Wolfe, city rates have not increased in three years, since February 1998 when sewer rates rose from a $4 base charge each month to $5.50. At that time, the cost for volume increased from 70 cents per thousand gallons to 90 cents per thousand. No per-gallon increase is forthcoming with the latest increase, Wolfe said.
Water rates have been stable for much longer and are being raised to reflect inflation. The last water increase was seven years ago when rates climbed from $5 to $5.50 for base service.
"I realize this is a bad time with all the things the community is facing," Wolfe said. "But we have to get our system to where it needs to be or we will be facing federal violations. The only solution we have is to increase rates."
The first notices that reflect the new rate are due out this month, Wolfe said.