Big Stone Gap defers action on water rate hike

Stephen Igo • May 9, 2007 at 11:48 AM

BIG STONE GAP - The Big Stone Gap Town Council deferred action Tuesday on raising water rates to help finance upgrades to its leaky water supply system.

On Tuesday, council members wanted more information on how the new rates might be affected by a finance package announced Monday by U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., Big Stone Gap Town Manager George Polly said Wednesday. Council members are primarily interested if the $4.9 million funding package could lower a new $7.50-per-month maintenance fee to water bills, along with higher rates.

On Monday, Boucher announced a $2 million grant and $2.9 million low-interest loan toward the estimated total $8.5 million fix to some 21 miles worth of the town's old and leaking water lines. The town loses between 6 and 7 gallons for every 10 gallons produced at the water plant below the Big Cherry Reservoir.

The sieve-like supply system was a big contributor to the town's water crisis of a year and a half ago, triggered by a drought and complicated by a need earlier in 2005 to draw down the reservoir during construction of the new dam. Adequate rains became rare during the spring of that year, a summer-into-fall dry spell that ironically began at around the same time the new dam was dedicated.

This spring, the 30 percent-bigger-capacity Big Cherry is full and overflows the spillway of the new dam. Now the town wants to be able to deliver at least most of what the water plant produces to its customers, which include Mountain Empire Community College, a hospital, the business district, and three public schools by increasing its accountability rate significantly more than a mere 40 percent.

The $4.9 million package is offered from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Agency. Boucher said Monday he is working with other federal agencies in hopes of announcing more funding for the project later this year.

Besides the $7.50-per-month maintenance fee proposed for both in-town and out-of-town water customers, the Big Stone Gap Town Council is considering an increase in the current minimum in-town rate from $12 for the first 1,000 gallons to $15 for the first 1,500 gallons, and from $16 for the first 1,000 gallons for out-of-town customers to $22.50 for the first 1,500 gallons.

The in-town rate of $3.50 per 1,000 gallons over the first 1,000 gallons would be raised to $5 for above 1,500-gallon overages, and the out-of-town rate for that category would go up from $5 to $7.50.

The reconnect fee would go from the current $20 to $40. New in-town water taps would go from $400 to $550, and out-of-town taps from $650 to $800. The proposal would also increase the wholesale rate for Lee County from the current $2.50 per 1,000 gallons to $3.50. If adopted, the rates are projected to become effective July 1.

The Town Council will meet again next Tuesday to consider the rates, Polly said. During his announcement at Big Stone Gap Town Hall on Monday, Boucher also announced funding to provide public water to 290 households in the Lee County community of Stickleyville. The RDA is providing a total $2.45 million package to the Stickleyville project, $1 million as a grant and $1.45 million as a low-interest loan.

Big Stone Gap provides water to 3,270 households within and outside the corporate limits, including to residents of East Stone Gap, Powell Valley, Back Valley, Crackers Neck, Wildcat, Cadet, Chandler Mountain and Strawberry Patch.

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