By Joel Phelps
Despite a lack of feedback from the public, Arkadelphia city directors say they’re in agreement that an increase in water rates is needed.
Tonight, the city board is set to decide which option to pass and when to put it into effect. Regardless of which option directors choose, the same end result will be met. Currently, the average Arkadelphia water customer pays $27.72 in water and wastewater fees, plus taxes and a $15 sanitation fee. By 2026, the average customer will be paying $55.06 in water and wastewater fees in addition to the taxes and sanitation fee.
The Arkadelphian inquired of directors whether they’ve received any feedback from citizens in their respective wards. The general consensus: “Other than my wife? No.” Mayor Scott Byrd, however, did open the conversation with patients at his dental practice.
Ward 1 Director Taylor Chaney declined comment on the proposed rate increase.
Ward 2 Director Chris Porter said he feels a rate increase is necessary. “This is part of us moving forward,” he said.
Arkadelphia Water Utilities needs more than $21 million in the next five years for deferred maintenance and deficiencies in the current water systems, City Manager Gary Brinkley said.
Porter applauded the work of David Green, utilities manager. “We have a lot of issues that weren’t addressed in the past, and we’re addressing them now.”
“With the tax increase we were given the opportunity to fix some issues,” Porter said. “This increase is part of that progression. I’m for it. I just want to be diligent in how we do it so there is not an abrupt impact on citizens.”
Porter said feedback will likely come once the rate increase takes effect. “I know this is going to get met with a lot of opposition, but then again there’s got to be those who say we haven’t had an increase in forever. We’re going to have to field the comments and do the best we can with them. It’s a matter of educating the public and letting them come to their own conclusion.”
Ward 3 Director Keith Crews was blunt in his response. “We should bite the bullet and give everybody the rate increase right now,” he said. “This frog in the water thing is crap in my opinion. Do I want water rates going up? Absolutely not. But we’ve got to face the fact that our water and sewer system is 100 years old.”
The city hired Crist Engineers to perform a water rate study with intent to determine a way to “stair-step” the adjustments to reach an operating “breaking even point” in revenue versus expenditures over a span of five years.
“The only other way you can come close to addressing it is you can kick it down the road and possibly sneak a lot of this cost in with [the widening of] Pine Street, but you still have to pay for it one way or another.”
Crews said if he could have his way there would be no incremental steps in raising the rates. “If they were to ask, I’d say kick the rates up right now,” Crews said. “It’s going to be painful, especially for small families with one parent. It’s going to be $15 to $25 more than what they were spending.”
Crews pointed out that, even after the rates are final water bills will still be half the cost of water in places like Benton. He added: “I think we should levelize the rates up front instead of slowly raising those costs. Kicking it down the road, I don’t agree with that.”
A voicemail was left Monday with Ward 4 Director Reo Cummings. He had not returned the call by noon Tuesday.
Ward 5 Director Jason Jones said each board member “realizes we have needs coming down the pipe, and we want to make it as painless as possible on all of our citizens. But we have to keep our infrastructure in good operating order.”
A call was made to Assistant Mayor Roland Gosey on Tuesday morning. Gosey was in a meeting, but his comments will be added to this story should he return the call.
Mayor Byrd said those citizens he’s talked to, mostly his dental patients, have been expecting a rate increase to happen. “Most say our water bill is not expensive here,” Byrd said. “We’re in the bottom 2 percent of water rates in the state. It’s not that they like [the rate increase] but they understand it. It’s not something we want to do, but it’s something we’re going to have to do.”
Byrd said he would opt for a rate increase option after the summer months. As for which option he’s in favor of, it would be the gradual increase. “We’re trying to find that happy ground that makes it more palatable for the majority of the citizens.”
“We’re kinda in a corner,” Byrd added. “We have to do this. If we don’t, our water quality is going to decline.”
Directors are expected to make a decision following a presentation from Brinkley.
The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Hall Boardroom.