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Charlotte Area

Water rates may rise again to plug $13M budget gap

http://66.225.205.104/JR20100325a.mp3

Another hike in water rates could be in the works for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities customers. The department is facing a $13 million budget gap for next year. The budget process has come at a difficult time for the utilities department and its interim director Barry Gullet. "Our customers are complaining, and rightfully so, because we're not providing the level of service that they expect," says Gullet. More than 1,000 customers have complained to the department in recent months about unusually high water bills and poor customer service. Gullet reassigned staff to investigate those complaints. But that came at the expense of other services like fixing water leaks. Gullet says previous budget cuts already left the department short-handed. To add further insult, many customers are still smarting from the 14 percent rate increase they got in 2008 as a reward for obediently conserving water during the drought. And now, Gullet says rates may need rise in the range of six or seven percent for most users in order to fill next year's budget gap. On hearing that, City Councilman Patrick Cannon warned Gullet it would be a hard sell. "And I would hate to ask you to go back to the drawing board, but it would seem to me the consumer understands better if they know there has been a concerted effort of insuring them that you're meeting them half way," said Cannon at a meeting of the City Council's Restructuring Government Committee on Thursday. Gullet presented city council members with several options for spreading the cost around. However, none of them included dropping the fourth tier of water rates. That was a top recommendation of a citizens' task force in Cornelius. They say the fourth tier, which was added after the drought, unfairly penalizes large water users by charging them a much higher rate. Gullet says the department hasn't ruled out dropping the fourth tier. But he also says it will be very hard to make up the $13 million budget shortfall without raising rates: "We will look hard, we're gonna tighten our belt wherever we can to drive that number down," says Gullet. "But that's where we are today and we'll be looking to reduce it." Most of the increase in next year's budget is a result of debt payments coming due on new water treatment facilities built during the region's boom years. Any change in rates will have to be approved by the City Council.