Bridgeville residents may soon pay more on their monthly water bills, a change that town leaders say is needed to cover costs and help pay for future water needs.
Commissioners have faced resistance in the past to increasing the rates, and those fees have not changed much for decades. The result is that water prices in Bridgeville are lower than in many surrounding towns, even smaller ones.
“We were by far one of the lowest rates, even five years ago,” Town Manager Bethany DeBussy said.
Very low rates probably sound great to many residents. But it has financial consequences for the town, officials say.
“We were fortunate enough over the years … our wastewater carried our water system,” DeBussy told the Commission at its June 27 workshop.
But now, Sussex County has taken over the wastewater system, and it’s had ripple effects for how the town makes the money add up in its budget. (Greenwood, which shared Bridgeville’s wastewater system, had a similar discussion during its budget season at the end of last year.)
“Now our system has to stand alone and be profitable enough so that we are setting aside money to be able to afford growth, and afford maintenance improvements,” DeBussy said.
Since she started as town manager, DeBussy has taken a detailed look at what projects are needed around town. Just maintaining water infrastructure is a huge expense for most towns, and DeBussy has identified millions of dollars in potential fixes, upgrades and projects in Bridgeville.
Bridgeville doesn’t have to cover all the money for those projects, even if it could. DeBussy has been aggressively seeking grants to help pay for a lot of the work. Some have been approved, and others are still pending. Commission President Tom Carey said he could not remember ever seeing the town get so much grant money.
Still, town leaders say the water system needs to be financially sustainable and bring in extra money that can be used for future projects. The town recently did a review of its water rates in coordination with the Delaware Rural Water Association, which found that Bridgeville’s rates for water usage – aside from the base rate – have not changed since 2010. And the base rate had actually been $7 a month in 1996, then gone down to $3.50 in the 2000s, before the Commission bumped it back up to $7.50 in 2014.
The recommendation from the review was that Bridgeville needs to cover its fixed annual water costs with the base rate, and its variable costs with the usage fees. And that will require a rate increase of some kind.
Some residents have questioned why the town doesn’t use reserve funds instead to help pay for the water, DeBussy said, but operating a system with reserves is shortsighted.
“You don’t want to get in a situation where you’re raising property taxes to support your water system,” DeBussy said. “That’s what water rates are for.” Carey agreed.
Right now, residents pay a base rate of $7.50 a month for water, known as a meter fee, plus these extra charges based on usage:
- 0-5,000 gallons: $2.79 per thousand gallons
- 5,000 to 10,000 gallons: $3.35 per thousand gallons
- 10,000 gallons plus: $3.75 per thousand gallons.
That translates to a typical bill of a little over $20 a month for residential users, DeBussy said. It varies, of course.
“I have three daughters that take showers all the time and the laundry’s always running, so my bill is like almost $30,” Carey said.
Up the road, Greenwood charges a $40 flat rate for the first 3,000 gallons, and $2.50 per 1,000 gallons after that.
Georgetown charges $35 quarterly, plus a flat rate of $3.88 per 1,000 gallons. That would come to a little over $30 a month on a typical bill.
The University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center has done comparisons of town rates across Delaware, but the most recent one I could find was from 2017. In that comparison, Bridgeville’s rates were among the lowest in the state.
The center broke down average costs per 1,000 gallons. Bridgeville’s cost was $3.80, while Laurel’s, for example, was $6.15, and Greenwood’s was $6.
A few other municipalities were similar to Bridgeville or a bit lower. Seaford, for example, was the lowest in Sussex County at $2.44 per 1,000 gallons overall, with a monthly fee of $21.95 for most residents (that is now up to $25.74 a month. Those who go over 9,000 gallons pay more, but see reduced rates on that extra usage.)
Farther north in the state, a number of towns had significantly higher rates.
The Bridgeville Commission actually passed a water rate increase in May 2014, or tried to. The base rate was still at its lower level of $3.50 a month then, but the plan was to raise the usage charges by about a dollar per 1,000 gallons.
It’s not clear why the town changed its mind on that, but meeting minutes show that the town also passed a property tax increase at the same time, and got unhappy feedback from residents on both those taxes and the water rates.
According to DeBussy, bills from 2014 show the water rate increase was never actually put into effect. And in the fall of that year, the town voted to change the usage rates back to their old levels, but they did raise the base fee to $7.50. That’s where the rates stand eight years later.
Now, town commissioners are rethinking that decision to go back on the usage rates.
“It’s necessary. It should have been done in ‘14; it wasn’t,” Carey said during one of the town’s budget meetings in June. He referred to the situation again in their monthly workshop, saying, “It’s our job to correct it as best we can.”
The town does not want to get in a situation someday where it loses control of the water system and has to turn to a private utility like Artesian Water, which can have monthly bills in the $60 range, DeBussy said.
Commissioners seemed to be emphatically on the same page there.
“We’re certainly not trying to pay a for-profit company to provide water to us … that would be a disaster,” Carey said.
DeBussy showed the commissioners some projections on how different rates would affect the money for the water system. Keeping things the same would mean the town would need to use money from elsewhere to cover costs, and would not be able to save anything for the future. But raising both the base rate and the usage rates could leave the town with a surplus to save for water projects. Commissioners seemed to think that was the most feasible option.
Commissioner Tom Moran asked what would happen if the town raised rates for the biggest industrial users, but DeBussy said focusing on the highest users does not change the numbers as much as it might seem, because there are so few users at that level.
Since this was a workshop and not a regular meeting, commissioners did not vote on any options, or even settle on proposed rates. The tentative plan is to introduce an ordinance on raising the rates in July, and hold a public hearing in August.
Officials expect people might not be thrilled about the proposal.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to get a little bit of kickback out of this,” Commissioner John Tomeski said.
“I know full well, looking at this is sticker shock,” DeBussy said. “It’s a huge change for us.” But, she said, the issue gets worse the longer it’s put off.
“We need to have the public hearing here, answer the questions until there are no more questions … and then we’ll move forward,” Carey said.
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