Tuesday night, the Brooklet City Council held a specially called Town Hall to address issues facing the town with regard to water pipes and the water system and how the council can proactively prepare for much needed repairs in the future.
The meeting was called to order by the Mayor, but Councilmembers Schlierf and Neuman led the meeting by addressing the needs and laying out what Brooklet has done thus far. After doing so, Schlierf explained that the purpose of the town hall was to discuss adding a capital fund fee to water bills, adjusting a late fee amount for water bills, and to consider changing water bills from monthly to bi-monthly in an effort to save costs. The public was invited to speak freely and without limit on each issue.
Councilman Schlierf explained to the council that over recent years, it had been discovered that many of the water line maps were old and out of date. Valves and lines were not properly marked and many now lay under paved roads, as opposed to dirt roads when the town was initially growing. The result has been that any time there is an issue with a water line, regardless of where it may be, the entire city must have their water shut off. This has caused problems for both residents and businesses and while the City has been working to segment much of the piping, roughly 40% needs to be upgraded or replaced. The town is looking to proactively plan for the expenses because, as the council explained to the room Tuesday evening, the issue is not “if” but “when.”
CAPITAL FUND CHANGES
The Council is considering a capital fund increase of $1-5 per month on the water bill. Based on the roughly 725 water accounts the city bills every month, the city could add a $1 fee and generate $8,700 annually which would cover the cost of replacing 174 feet of piping. The full $5 increase, however, would generate $43,500 annually and allow for significantly more piping to be replaced.
According to council members, Brooklet needs to replace roughly 9,000 feet of pipeline in town with a few other water-related projects at a cost of roughly $1,000,000. Some of this will be paid from SPLOST money, however, SPLOST cannot and will not cover the entire need. The City only receives $1,000,000 every 7 years for all SPLOST projects and that is pending voter approval and renewal. Other funds can come from an annual baseline surplus from the water accounts but the funds will not reach the needed threshold. The hope is to have the plan implemented over 10 years with the fee and secondary sources.
Residents expressed concern over the full $5 increase saying they were worried the fees collected would be transferred to the General Fund and used on other projects. Councilman Schlierf quickly clarified that a capital fee would be set aside and would only legally be allowed to be used for capital projects like roads and facilities directly related to the City. In this case, specifically the water line upgrades. Other residents said commercial accounts should have to pay more than residential accounts because their usage rate is higher, but one resident spoke up and said that commercial entities are still paying for their actual usage and shouldn’t be penalized. That led to the discussion of gradual increases or a fee based on usage, likely 15% of the total bill. The biggest concern among residents appeared to be the number of persons on a fixed income. Several spoke out saying they would rather have a flat fee they can plan for as opposed to a percentage of the monthly usage.
The alternative to increasing the fee, council says, is waiting until a big issue arises and having to borrow money on the spot. That could be costly to every person in Brooklet and leave water users on the hook for nearly 2x the actual cost of the repairs and upgrades because of interest rates.
Surrounding cities like Rincon, Portal, Swainsboro, and others were surveyed to consider the late fees some cities are assessing. The results indicate that Brooklet’s 5% late fee is simply behind the other towns. Some cities charge a flat fee between $10-25 while others charge a fee based on percentage, likely 10-25%.
Following complaints that water bills were mailed late, council members explained that a new system had been implemented and the issue was largely resolved. The proposal is a $10 late fee if bills are not paid by the 15th. Right now, water is not disconnected until roughly 75 days of nonpayment, even though fees continue to accrue. At this time, there are no plans to cut off water connections at an earlier date.
The last measure considered for the Town Hall pertained to the bill cycles. In an effort to save employee time and expenses on billing and postage, Council proposed changing the billing cycles for water bills from monthly to bi-monthly.
The idea was largely opposed with residents going as far as to say they would pay their own postage if they could have the bill come monthly. The concern stemmed more from concern that a leak or a problem would not be caught for at least sixty days in some cases if the bills were extended, and less on the reasoning of cost.
After hearing the feedback from the public, Councilman Schlierf said he felt confident enough in the public opinion to remove the proposal to reduce the number of billing cycles from monthly to bi-monthly from the upcoming calendar.
Following the meeting, both Neuman and Schlierf as well as the Mayor expressed their satisfaction with the turnout of citizens. Schlierf said he was glad that the public came prepared to offer opinions and suggestions, some of which had not yet been considered by council.
Further discussion on the concise numbers among members of the council will take place at Thursday’s meeting. They plan to vote on the measures at the regularly scheduled meeting – April 21 at 7:00 P.M. at City Hall.