Council holds first reading of utility rates for water and sewer

On Monday, Charlottesville City Council held the public hearing and the first of two readings on utility rates. That includes water, sewer, natural gas, and stormwater fees.

“Eighty-seven percent of city residents receive these four utilities in some way, shape, or form,” said Chris Cullinan, Charlottesville’s finance director. “For the average customer who uses the average amount of water and generates the average amount of wastewater, and uses the average amount of natural gas and has an average lot size, we are looking at a monthly increase of less than $10.” 

If approved, the rates would go into effect on July 1. Cullinan acknowledged that $10 a month may be a lot for some community members but that the additional money is an investment in safe and reliable drinking water.

“What we always think about is the value proposition,” Cullinan said. “What are you getting for what you pay for?” 

For those who may have trouble paying, there are assistance options available for water and sewer as well as natural gas.

It costs money to run a municipal water and sewer system and to keep it up to date. Charlottesville has around 14,800 customers according to Lauren Hildebrand, the city’s utilities director. 

“We deliver 4.6 million gallons of water daily,” Hildebrand said. “We maintain 179 miles of water line, 116 miles of wastewater pipelines, and last year we worked over 8,300 work orders in the utilities department.” 

Hildebrand said the city has been working since 2008 to replace aging infrastructure and 23 of those miles of water lines have been upgraded to new materials. That’s about 12.8 percent of the water system. 

“We’ve spent $30.6 million of total construction cost,” Hilderbrand said. “In the wastewater system we’ve replaced or rehabilitated 65 miles of the system, or 38 percent. We’ve spent about $33.6 million.” 

That money comes from rate payers. Rate payers also cover the city’s purchase of water and sewer services from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. That agency builds and maintains water treatment plans and major pipelines, and also processes effluent at the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

The RWSA’s five-year capital budget is currently $326,125,000, including about $75 million in contingencies for inflation and if any scope changes need to be made. Some of the charges include an acceleration of a long-anticipated pipeline between the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir and Ragged Mountain Reservoir. The goal is to have that two-way water line in place by 2030 rather than 2033.  

“It will enhance the capacity, reliability, and resiliency of the community’s water system,” Hildebrand said. “We decided to really accelerate the completion of this project because you never know with climate change occurring and we certainly don’t want to experience what we had back in 2002 with the large drought we experienced back then.” 

The total cost is $80 million and the city’s share is 20 percent. 

Another project that RWSA is building is the Central Waterline Project through Charlottesville to connect the Observatory Water Treatment Plant to Long Street. 

“It improves hydraulic connectivity and efficiency of the urban water system,” Hildebrand said. “It’s estimated right now at $41 million and the city’s portion is 48 percent.” 

Overall, the city is responsible for paying about a third of the RWSA’s capital plan. 

A slide with information about the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s capital improvement plan and how that affects Charlottesville’s utility rates (Credit: City of Charlottesville)

Hildebrand said one initiative underway is a federally-mandated inventory of utility lines to determine if there’s lead in them. That includes privately-owned pipes.

“But we need some help from the community and we have a lead service inventory survey that’s been created and a video that people can look and figure out what material they’ve got on the private side of their system,” Hildebrand said.

You can fill out that survey here

Only one person spoke during the public hearing. Martha Smythe had this question related to the Cville Plans Together land use initiative:

“I’m wondering what sort of excess capacity is in our water system and in our sewer system to handle the growth that could come from the large upzoning?” Smythe asked. 

Hildebrand said her staff are communicating with the Department of Neighborhood Development Services on the topic.

“We’re kind of confined to this ten square miles and the systems we have in place are really very, very sufficient and the improvements that we’re making and things we look at, they’re very sufficient to handle the zoning,” Hildebrand said. 

Cullinan explained that the city also charges connection fees for new development that are earmarked to pay for new capacity. 

The second reading will be on the consent agenda for the June 19, 2023 meeting. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the June 7, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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