County approves water rate hikes |

County approves water rate hikes

by Sheila Gardner

Disbelief and tears flowed Thursday at the Douglas County commission meeting as customers of the tiny Fairgrounds water system lobbied unsuccessfully to keep their interim water rates from skyrocketing more than 300 percent.

“We thought we could die in this house,” sobbed Lucille Patterson. “But we’ll be out of our house living on the street in less than a year.

“How can you sit there and do this to us? We thought coming to Nevada was our destiny. Now it’s our down fall. I hope you guys can sleep at night.”

Commissioners approved ordinances authorizing interim rate hikes for the Valley’s five water system which take effect Oct. 1.

With fewer than three dozen homes, the Fairgrounds system is facing a 319 percent hike. By 2014, under the current structure, the increase would be 1,000 percent over the current average monthly rate of $45.10.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve four of the rate hikes, but Greg Lynn and Nancy McDermid voted against the Fairgrounds hike.

“I’m damned if I am going to vote people out of their houses,” Lynn said. “I can’t do this. Asking you folks to pull out your landscaping doesn’t do any good.”

Board members said they would continue to press for solutions to the enormous hike over the next nine months.

“I can’t tell you how many different times I’ve been trying to help this system,” said Commissioner Doug Johnson. “We’ve tried to help, but failed, because of circumstances beyond our control. If we don’t approve these rates today, we’ll be so far behind, your rates will go higher. We’re working very hard to fix these systems. We know it’s not right.”

Public Works Director Carl Ruschmeyer detailed the history of the Sunrise Estates system that includes the subdivision, Nevada Department of Transportation yard and county facilities including the fairgrounds, animal shelter and transfer station.

Originally, the subdivision had a stand-alone system with two wells to serve residents. The county owned the Fairgrounds system.

In the mid-90s one of the subdivision’s wells suffered a “catastrophic failure” and no longer met standards for fire flows.

“The fairgrounds was a close neighbor. They had a deficient water supply, but had a tank with storage capacity. It was beneficial to both to combine,” Ruschmeyer said.

Developer Peter Beekhof paid 50 percent of the improvements at no cost to Sunrise Estates.

Since then, the system has been subsidized out of the county’s general fund, a policy commissioners have been working to change for the past two years by overhauling rates to assure systems pay for themselves.

Now, ratepayers are facing $2.5 million capital improvement project to correct an arsenic problem scheduled to be on line in 2013.

Ruschmeyer said the county has applied for a grant for the improvement project, but he has no assurance if they will be successful and may not know for two years.

Sunrise Estates resident Ron Bratsch said as a state employee, his salary had been cut and he couldn’t afford the hikes.

“I’m at a point where I’ll probably lose my house. I’ll stop watering the lawn and tear out the shrubbery,” he said.

He proposed using the arsenic-laced water in the subdivision’s wells for irrigation, offering to help his neighbors move water from the well on his property to their yards.

“Are we better off using our own wells? The water hasn’t killed me yet,” Bratsch said.

Carol Brundige summed up the sentiment of her neighbors.

“Holy crap!” she said. “We found out Aug. 20 we were in the fairgrounds system. You can’t do this to us.

“Most of us are retired and we’re dumfounded, terrified, petrified and horrified. Who will buy our homes?”

Most of those in attendance indicated they were unaware of the county’s decision to forego consolidating the water systems for a more uniform rate hike.

“For the last 18-24 months the board was looking at water consolidation,” Commission Chairman Mike Olson said. “It was going pretty well until the last six months. Mr. (Stuart) Posselt led the charge against it. We did not consolidate. That was the message from the majority of people we heard from.”

At that, audience members shouted their disapproval, claiming they didn’t know about the consolidation.

“This is the first we heard of it,” someone yelled from the audience.

Olson said the board would continue to look for solutions.

“Nobody on this board wants to see people pay more for water than their groceries or mortgage statements,” Olson said.

Sunrise Estates resident Jennifer Hinnant said she was shocked at the rate hike.

“My heart beats insanely fast at the thought of where we’re going to be five years from now. We love everything about our community. When we hear those heart-wrenching tales, this needs to be considered. Who said, ‘Let’s give this community the brunt of this situation?'”

“I want to really emphasize we’re going after funding from every available source,” said County Manager T. Michael Brown.

The rate hikes are in effect through June 30, 2011, when commissioners will implement the next round.