Mayor gives background, next steps on water situation
The City of Graham sent out its second billing utilizing the new water meter system late last week. As with the first billing under the new system, City Hall has had many calls and visits from concerned citizens wanting an explanation of their latest bill. In an effort to put some perspective on this situation, I would like to submit the following to explain where we were, what got us to this point, and where we are trying to get to in regards to water in the City of Graham.
Beginning in 2010, a drought ravaged not only our community of Graham, but all of the state of Texas. Soon after this, the City recognized that our current water plant was deteriorating rapidly and was having difficulty treating the increasing needs of our community. We began a study into the replacement of our 35+year-old plant and our other water distribution needs. The end result of the study was that the City needed to replace our plant with a new plant, increase production capacity, and if we had money left over, use it towards other vital projects such as building a second water line from the plant to the city and replace the aging water lines throughout the system.
This new project required a minimum $14 million to complete. The City Council approved the expenditure and issued of the $14 million in bonds to pay for it. On Sept. 25, 2013, a water rate increase was adopted to ensure that we could generate enough revenue to pay for the project.
By late 2013, our water levels in Lake Graham and Lake Eddleman reached levels that triggered the mandatory water restrictions set out in our city ordinances. Still, even after multiple pleas to the citizens, we had many customers not adhering to the water restriction ordinances. The City Council enacted a second rate increase to account for lower water usage, but also to act as a deterrent for those that chose to ignore the water restrictions. This rate change was enacted in September of 2014, and the City has billed for water usage based on that rate ever since.
As all of this was going on, the drought still persisted and worsened for our community. Our water levels dropped to levels not seen since the initial development of Lake Graham and Lake Eddleman. Contingency plans and actual expenditures were made to make sure the city could treat the minimum amount of water needed. Then in late May of 2015, the skies finally opened.
At this point construction was going well on the new plant, water restrictions were lifted, and life seemed to go well from a water distribution standpoint, with the exception of line breaks and such, until October of 2015. And that is when the game changed.
When the City went out to do its monthly meter reading for October, over 50 percent of the meters in the City of Graham did not register with the system. After several more attempts using our equipment, equipment from other cities, and other means, it was determined that we had incurred a systematic failure and replacement of 100 percent (about 4,400) of our meters would be required. The City immediately issued a Request For Proposal from any and all water meter companies and began interviews with each to find a suitable vendor. After several months of interviews and inquiry, the City chose Ferguson/Mueller to replace our water meters.
In the meantime, we still needed to receive revenue to pay for the water that was being treated and we had no way to measure individual usage. The City made the decision to do a weighted average number for billing using the prior year when the City was still under water restrictions. The thought process behind this method was that we could at least bill for each meter’s minimum average usage and that it would not overcharge anyone because, in theory, we were using water usage during the mandatory water restrictions. This was the only workable solution we felt comfortable using, but it has exacerbated the current problem.
Once we got the new meters installed and began receiving test readings, it became very obvious that our prior system was woefully underreporting usage on many meters. We also found meters that had been set up in the system that were being billed a set amount every month. We found a lot of things. What we then needed was feedback from the public, so the first billing cycle was sent out last month.
The response was overwhelming. The most common question is how can my bill increase four-fold-plus in one month? First, nobody in this town has received a water bill in over two years that did not have something artificially affecting their usage/bill.
Two summers ago, we were in drought with water restrictions in effect. Last summer was the wettest we have had in a while and also, the meters in use were failing. This past fall the meters failed and eight months of bills were created using our water usage from the year before during water restrictions. Second, it is amazing how poorly our previous meters were reading usage. We have tested these new meters constantly during installation and we have had 99-plus-percent accurate readings.
So now what do we do? The city is not looking to hoard money. We have never had that mentality. But we do have $14 million in bonds for the water plant that will need to be serviced over the next 20 to 30 years. We do need to get a second water line in place from the plant to town to give us water in emergency situations and allow us to take the existing line out of service to be repaired. We need to pay Fergusson/Mueller $1.8 million for the new water meters they installed last year. Finally, we need to make some drastic improvements to our existing in-town water distribution system.
Before the water bill issue became the hot topic of the day, water discoloration was the complaint we heard the most about. The water discoloration issue is mainly a function of a large portion of our water distribution system being 60-plus years old and made of cast iron. It rusts, plain and simple. Each year when we do the state-mandated chlorine burnout of these lines, it will knock some of that rust off the pipes and into the system. The problem was made worse this year because in the past several years, during the drought, we just did the minimum the state required as we felt we couldn’t afford to flush the lines out excessively and waste that water.
This year we tried to make up for that, and our pipes took a beating. We need to replace those old cast iron lines with new polylines. This will not only eliminate the water discoloration, but it will also decrease our line breakage rate. This project, if taken on, is estimated to cost $425,000 to $500,000 a year for the next 10 years.
In the end, what we need to do as a city is determine how much money we need from our water sales to pay for the past and future water expenditures. And unfortunately, this process takes a little time.
Right now we are in the heart of maximum water usage by the City of Graham. By January, we will be processing and selling 1/3 of the amount of water we did last month. That is based on what we have seen in the past, and I am cautious to put too much stock in that number due to the inaccuracies of our previous metering system. What we can’t do is get into a situation of amending water rates every few months.
I would implore each and every citizen to contact us if you have a question. We have made mistakes in this process. I know of people who were being billed for the wrong-sized meter and that threw their bill way out of whack. I know of people that had leaks that they did not know about that were identified through the new system.
The problem is that we cannot help anyone that doesn’t come and talk to us. It is amazing what the new system can tell you about your water use. I found out that over 90 percent of my usage comes from watering my lawn. I did some math based on sprinkler heads and running times and the numbers were accurate and astounding.
This is the top priority of the City and the immediate solution will be to revert back to the September 2013 water rate schedule that was adopted to cover our payment needs for the new water plant. Beyond that, the City needs time to evaluate water usage and if the revenues received are out of tune with the water obligations of the City.
We ask that all water customers contact us with any and all questions or issues they have concerning the water system. We can only help those people that we know about. I also ask that everyone that does come into City Hall please remember that the people helping you are water customers also. We do not have different rate structures for different people within the city. We are all in this together, we all want to do the best job we can, and we want to resolve this issue to the betterment of all citizens of Graham.