Garland has made successful strides toward rectifying finances and tending to struggling funds, an arduous task that has consumed months of time and has not averted residents’ pocketbooks. The goal throughout the process, town officials said, has been to make sure everyone is aware and has input on all issues, especially those involving rising cost of services.
Mayor Winifred Murphy said the town was inundated with concerns, complaints and questions regarding hiked water and sewer bills, a matter taken up by the town’s Board of Commissioners in detail over the course of numerous meetings earlier this year. Bills reflecting the change were mailed out last week.
“Water bills did go out (last week) and we were slammed (last Wednesday), big time. But we’ve been talking about this for months. All of a sudden, it’s like ‘my water bill’s going up,’” Murphy said during a recent special meeting. “We are truly trying to involve all the citizens in all the decisions so you can’t look back and say ‘well, this happened to me.’ I want every citizen to feel like the commissioners here in Garland are not making decisions without your knowing about it. That’s why we encourage you to attend the meetings and come out and ask questions.”
In May, the town boosted its water and sewer rates significantly in an effort to keep the town’s fund from sinking. In July, town officials noted that the ongoing audit with independent auditor Scott Bridgers revealed that the fund had improved, allowing the town to come down slightly from the increased rates, but still maintaining a fairly sizable boost to the previous fees.
The state notified the town of “a serious financial weakness in the Water and Sewer Fund, indicating that the water and sewer system may not be sustainable in its current form over the long term.” Mike Hill, of the North Carolina Rural Water Association, drove that point home in May, saying raising rates would allow for capital reserve funds to be compiled in case of emergencies in the system.
He pointed to the town’s rates — a base water rate of $15.50 for 2,000 gallons and $4.50 for each additional 1,000 gallons — and said the low rates were “killing” the town.
The town responded by increasing the water rate for in-town customers to a flat fee of $12, with a usage rate of $5.25 per 1,000 gallons. For sewer, the in-town customers would pay a flat rate of $20, with a usage rate of $5.70 per 1,000 gallons.
Once Bridgers came back with positive news on the fund, the board voted in July to modify usage rates to $3.50 per 1,000 gallons for water, and $4 per 1,000 gallons for sewer. The flat rates were kept intact. Even though the rates were down from where the board originally voted them in May, the rise still took some residents by surprise. Some were “up in arms” about the hike, the mayor said.
“Once you sit down and talk with the residents, they understand it and they calm down,” said Murphy. “We had a man come in here and he was so ugly, but then he came back and apologized to us. Once they understand that we’re doing this because we are in the deficit, that we can’t keep pumps and wells running — 11,000 gallons cost me $132, my water bill was almost double this month — I tell them that.”
She said it is about perspective too, with 25 gallons at the gas pump costing $100, she noted. “And how much would (water) cost you if you went down to the store and bought it a bottle at a time?” Commissioner Ralph Smith offered.
As with any issues, Murphy said communication was key.
“Just come talk to us, become a part of the process, so that they don’t feel like we’re doing something to hurt them,” Murphy said. “Once we can get that message across, I think we’ll be OK. We want them on our team, we want them listening, and I think they understand that. Individually, one by one, I think we’re making headway.”
Murphy said she has told them that months were spent talking with state and local officials, gauging what rates in other municipalities were and doing a good amount of research before coming to the conclusion to modify rates. The mayor lauded town clerk Pam Cashwell with doing a good job of explaining to residents the situation and what brought about the change in rates, from the town’s financial condition and the need to bring rates in line with other towns so Garland’s services will not be adversely affected.
“We’ve been sitting and talking with people to help them understand where they were, where they would be if we kept the rates as they were in May, and where they are now,” said Murphy. “It wasn’t that the water and sewer rates have improved the income, it’s just that we feel like we have cut expenditures some that we can ease them into it. We’re not seeing a whole lot of revenue. When we looked at (June’s) pre-billing and (July’s) pre-billing, it was less than $6,000. We’re trying to cut costs and we are seeing a little bit more revenue. We’re seeing some that we think we can live with.”
Audit ongoing, budget in focus
While an independent audit with Bridgers covering the 2011-12 budget is still continuing, the town’s budget for 2012-13 is an accurate reflection of Garland’s finances.
“The auditor and I are still in the process of our detailed full-year audit,” said Cashwell. “I finished the revenue part and we’re waiting on him to finish his part. He’s found it’s a little bit more time-consuming than he anticipated. In the meantime, we have gotten our budget versus actual completely up to date. This is real numbers folks. We are doing it on a daily basis now, so at every meeting you should be able to be given one of these to look at income and expenditures.”
Murphy said she was excited about the progress.
“I’m really excited,” said Murphy. “Every time I’ve been saying ‘the revenue is not really accurate.’ But what you’re looking at now is the revenue that has been collected in July, the expenditures are all the checks that have been written for July. We’re very, very pleased that we’re able to get this fiscal year started out like it should be. That is going to be very helpful in making budgetary decisions and knowing where the money is.”
Murphy implored citizens to remain engaged and educated on the town’s financial condition, the N.C. STEP grant process and, most recently, the Head Start situation and the push to keep program services in Garland.
“I just want everybody to know that the commissioners here and trying to make things better. We’re not sitting around a table as six individuals making decisions that will negatively impact the citizens of Garland,” the mayor remarked. “We are trying to make it a better place, but we cannot do it by ourselves. We have to have all the citizens involved, engaged and participating.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.