Harrisburg city leaders refuse to pass water rate increase on to citizens

Harrisburg city leaders refuse to pass water rate increase on to citizens.

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HARRISBURG — Accusations flew Thursday at the Harrisburg City Council meeting as city commissioners and members of the Saline Valley Conservancy District faced off over financial and contractual issues.

Commissioner Mike Weirauch arranged for the SVCD officials to speak at the meeting after Harrisburg Mayor John McPeek and city commissioners in June refused to pass on water rate increases from the district to the public.

SVCD board member Robert Wilson said that difficulties in communication between the city and the district were caused by inaccurate information given to city officials by city employees.

Wilson said one inaccuracy was the belief that the SVCD raised rates on City of Harrisburg, but not on other customers.

“I told the mayor in a recent meeting that was not true," Wilson said. "The City of Harrisburg has never been charged more, in fact it has always had the lowest rate of all our customers."

Another inaccuracy was the belief the SVCD had raised rates at an outrageous pace.

Wilson said that it was true that from the beginning of the 40-year contract between the two entities to present date, SVCD had raised its rates to the city about 154 percent. However, during the same time period, the City of Harrisburg had raised the basic rates it charges for water service about 342 percent.

Wilson said that the SVCD and the city have always worked hand in hand to provide water to their citizens, and until recently, there has been good cooperation between the two entities.

He then proposed that he share a newly proposed 40-year contract with those present, which brought up an issue at the crux of the meeting — whether or not the current contract was in force or not.

Wilson said attorney to the City of Harrisburg Todd Bittle had filed a pleading that said the current contract is void and unenforceable. He said SVCD also has a letter from the city addressing the same issue.

Bittle suggested the end date of the contract was vague.

He said the original contract was signed in 1981, but stipulates it would not be enforced until water was delivered. Water was not delivered until 1984, and there was a further addendum to the contract.

As Wilson went through the contract paragraph, tensions between the two entities were highlighted.

A long-standing rate exchange agreement between the city and SVCD concerning a pass-through used by the district to serve the communities of Carrier Mills, Stonefort and New Burnside is also up for renegotiation in the new contract.

The SVCD suggested building a bypass to the city which would allow those communities to be serviced directly.

Also at issue is the need for both the city and the district to update their infrastructure. SVCD is in need of new wells and pumps and the City of Harrisburg is facing, in places, 100-year old pipes that function inefficiently and periodically leak.

At the heart of this struggle is how this will all be paid for. Without a new contract with the City of Harrisburg, the SVCD cannot meet the bond obligations is has to its lender. And without water, the City of Harrisburg cannot survive.

City Officials and officials from the SVCD decided to host a public meeting in the near future to hammer out details of a new contract.

618-351-5074

barb.eidlin@thesouthern.com

On Twitter: @barbeidlin

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