Although demand for water has slowed in recent years, rates might continue their slow, upward march for the authorities that service homes and businesses in Cobb and neighboring counties.
The Cobb-Marietta Water Authority’s planning committee voted last Thursday in favor of raising the price of water by another 2% in 2020, hewing to a three-year price plan it had approved in 2018. It also approved a four-year plan that would raise rates 2.5% per year through 2024.
The committee’s vote is essentially a recommendation and will now be considered by the finance committee. The recommendation from the finance committee will go before the entire board at its November meeting for a first reading. A final budget will be approved in December.
Marietta Councilman Grif Chalfant, James Scott, Dan Buyers and James Balli make up the Water Authority’s four-person planning committee.
“It will give us a guide for planning and it will give our customers a guide for planning,” said Director of Finance Allison Clements.
The authority is a wholesaler that sells water to local governments, including Cobb County, to distribute.
Clements said the authority would be facing a deficit come 2033 if it did not increase rates at any point between now and then.
Clements presented the committee with three options: One in which rates would rise 2% through 2024, the one they approved, and another in which rates rise only 1.5% through 2022 before returning to 2% until 2024.
“We cannot maintain a lower rate increase and still have the results that we need to fund more capital programs,” she said.
One reason, she said, is the loss of one of the Water Authority’s customers, Paulding County. Paulding will open its own treatment plant in 2020 and plans to expand it in 2033.
But there are other reasons for the increase.
A steady increase in prices will give the Water Authority a cushion should something dramatic, like the 2007 drought, require an increase in spending. That year, it raised water rates almost 40%.
Committee members acknowledged the poor optics of raising rates during a drought, which reliably leads to a spike in the amount of water the authority sells and the money it makes.
In response to consultation with 350 local water authorities, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has placed the state on a Level 1 drought response in October, which triggers production of educational materials, like “notice regarding drought conditions and drought-specific announcements in newspaper or online ads, bill inserts, social media and notices in public libraries,” according to Kevin Chambers, a spokesman for the Georgia EPD.
“We’re coming off a drought, so everybody’s thinking we sold a lot of water, but I don’t want to make the same mistake the board made 20 years ago, saying ‘Hey, we got this big balance, so let’s not do any rate increases,’ and they had 35% one year,” Dan Buyers said. “But I do feel like the 2% program is not sustainable in the long term.”