Butler County’s new water and sewer department director says the current utility rates are “adequate” to run the systems and the department so no rate hikes will be recommended any time soon.
The commissioners promoted Martha Shelby to the top position last week and she told them retaining quality staff, examining rates to see if they need adjusting and continuing to invest in the system with upgrades are her priorities.
“We need to keep our rates in check,” she said. “We reduced our rates in 2009 and have yet to change them ongoing now for 10 years. While this cannot go on forever, we do want to continue to be very rate conscious and minimize any future increases.”
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In 2009 the county reduced water rates by about 5 percent for residential customers using less than 3,000 gallons and sewer rates by almost 18 percent. Basic commercial water rates were reduced by about 24 percent and sewer rates dropped almost 28 percent.
Commissioner Don Dixon said a combination of the department reorganization — the department has gone from almost 150 employees in 2009 to 96 — and the county’s renegotiated contract to purchase water from Hamilton in 2015 have helped keep the rates status quo. Keeping the system in top shape however has to fit into the rate adjustment equation.
“Ten years is unheard of for rate increases for utilities…,” Dixon said. “But one thing you have to keep in mind with utilities, you have to reinvest, you have to maintain. We’ve got an excellent system and you have to put that money back in or you’re going to pay for it later.”
Dixon said he doesn’t see an “imminent” rate hike, but “there has to be a fine point that says this much has to go back into to keep the system an ‘A’ grade system and this much can go back to keep the rates down.”
The new deal the county struck with Hamilton in 2015 decreased water rates from $2.78 per thousand gallons to $1.66, the same rate the county was paying to Cincinnati for some of its customers. County Administrator Charlie Young said that rate is good until 2021, then Hamilton is allowed to raise rates based on the cost of living. If that happens Young said customers will most likely see an increase as well.
“Water supply is a dominant cost for our system,” Young said. “We have to pass on that cost to our customers. If it goes up, we fairly quickly have to respond and pass that cost along. But we will certainly continue to do what we’ve done for the last 10 years to reduce costs, to try to keep any rate increase as minimal as possible.”
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The county is about to begin several significant projects to upgrade the system. Bids for a $7.6 million project to install two new lift stations and forced mains in Fairfield Twp. near the county engineer’s office will be opened this week. The contract for a $1 million water main replacement on Jerry Drive in West Chester Twp. was awarded by the commissioners Monday.
Butler County ranks 9th out of 63 jurisdictions surveyed in the city of Oakwood’s annual ranking of water and sewer rates in the region. The county has been steadily rising up through the ranking for lowest rates. In 2005, it ranked 53rd out of 64.
Shelby, whose annual salary will be $112,684, has been with the department for 21 years, first as the engineering and construction manager and she became the division head for administration in April when former director Sue Vance left to head the Southwest Regional Water District.
The county interviewed a handful of exterior candidates and Jack Thornsberry, who is now second in command in the department, for the job. Commissioner T.C. Rogers said it was “prudent” to post the job to the public to make sure they got the best person for the job and they did in Shelby.
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