If ignorance truly were bliss, Hamlet would have boasted a lot of happy people last Thursday — the day the new water and sewer bills came out.
But, oh, the clamor from residents who thought (at best) that their water lines had sprung leaks or (at worst) that the city was trying to sneak new rates past them.
The phones rang off the hook at City Hall. Some people even made the trip into town to complain.
Average bills for water rose around 20 bucks or so, we’re told. That’s not a tank of gas, but it’s not insignificant. Nor should it have been a surprise.
The City Council had held at least two regular meetings during which they discussed the rate increases, which lowered the minimum rate for water and sewer use a few bucks, and based bills on usage of each 1,000 gallons.
Council members also met during three workshop sessions, to discuss what should be included in the budget for 2018-19 and how the city should pay for the various things it wanted to do. No one showed up at those meetings except city department heads explaining what they thought they needed and those things would cost.
Very few residents showed up when council members passed the budget either.
I’ll admit that water and sewer services aren’t “sexy.” But people use them, and they do cost something, so you might think people would like to know how the cost is determined. (There’s a lot of kerfuffle in the national news lately about tariffs. You can bet the farm folk in our area are keeping track of how those discussions are going because tariffs can hurt or help their bottom lines.)
So here’s a helpful primer on water and sewer rates. I will try to be brief.
Water and sewer services must be self-sustaining. That means that they can’t take money out of the general fund if they don’t raise enough from billing customers for use, and they can’t be tapped to fill in deficits if they somehow manage to raise “too much.”
The problem in Hamlet had been that some people were paying the base rate and not using all the water or sewer service they paid for. Those would have been mainly one-person, older households.
So, to reduce the burden on people paying too much and make sure people generally paid for what they used, Hamlet increased its rates enough to make a few improvements when the 40-year bond for the most recent upgrades to the water-treatment plant ends in two years.
Coincidentally, they hadn’t raised water rates for eight years and figured it was about time.
The city also wanted to make sure its charges ran in line with statewide averages for cities of its size, so it would be eligible for grant financing for public projects. Granting entities usually don’t like to pick up the tab for projects they think should be paid for by taxpayers — things such as parks and playgrounds. Their thinking goes: Well, if the city doesn’t think enough of this project to chip in taxpayer money, why should we help ‘em out?
Now what of last Thursday’s protest from people who didn’t know the rates would rise?
What more could the city have done?
It held at least five public meetings on the rate increases, which ran on public-access TV. The meetings also were covered in the pages of the Daily Journal and at least one other news outlet, as well as on the Daily Journal and City of Hamlet Facebook pages.
Too, City Manager Jonathan Blanton wrote a letter to consumers that was included in water bills for May, June and July.
Apparently no one read those, and that doesn’t cause much surprise. I don’t read those either. I open my bills, shed what I consider to be extraneous material and save only the bill to be paid — when I read the bill at all. I have most bills on auto-pay and adjust only when I get a reminder saying that I have racked up a surplus or, worse, a deficit. (The latter often has big red letters on it, so I do look at it.)
Apparently, I am an “average citizen” in at least this regard.
Robocalls would not have worked either.
If you’re like me, you don’t pick up calls from numbers you don’t recognize. On the rare occasions I have, the “person” on the other end has tended to be a recording selling health insurance — which I already have, thank you — or someone looking for political-campaign contributions. The latter people seem to think I have a vast pool of money into which I will dip indiscriminately.
Many people have told the city administrator that they would show up to complain at the coming council meeting — which, by the way, will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 14.
I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and see them there. Usually, only the mayor’s wife, city workers, reporters and a few scattered members of the business public attend. Oh, and the police officer who is there to ensure order among the group of about, what, 15 of us?
Maybe someone will have an idea of how we uninformed billpayers should be informed of things that affect us.
I’m sure the members of council will be there with open ears.