Water rate increase approved; draws opposition – Hot Springs Sentinel

Newly elected officials are questioning why the Hot Springs Board of Directors would put a water rate increase on its agenda a week after the Nov. 8 election.
Dayton Myers, District 7 justice of the peace-elect, and Dudley Webb III, District 4 city director-elect, said they have organized a committee opposing the proposed $4 increase that would take full effect next November.
Myers said the committee hoped to convince the board to call for a referendum but was ready to organize a citizen-initiated one if the ordinance was adopted Tuesday.
The board adopted the ordinance at its meeting Tuesday night. Director Karen Garcia was the lone dissenting vote.
Water rates became a salient issue in the Nov. 8 election. Most of the challengers for the four board seats on the ballot focused their campaigns on water rates and how the city planned to cover cost overruns in the more than $100 million Lake Ouachita water supply project.
The rate structure that took effect in 2018 services bonds financing the project, raising base rates over a five-year period from $5 a month to $13.39 for residential customers inside the city and from $7.50 to more than $19 for customers outside the city.
The short agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting the city released two hours before the polls closed in the Nov. 8 election included the rate increase ordinance and an ordinance authorizing $45 million of new debt for the supply project. The city has said bringing its Lake Ouachita allocation online will cost about $40 million more than had been budgeted.
“We think the timing is atrocious,” Myers said Tuesday. “A week ago was election day. They’re voting on a water rate hike, even though it was probably the biggest issue of the election cycle we just went through for the city board.
“With inflation hitting pocketbooks of people living paycheck to paycheck, we want the public to be aware of this before something happens. I think it’s poor timing on the city board and city management.”
Myers questioned putting the rate increase on the agenda of the 2021-22 board’s third to last business meeting. Two of the seven directors won’t be on the 2023-24 board that will be seated in January.
“I think the city government is not being transparent,” Myers said. “Most of the public probably didn’t know about it until the article in the paper on Friday. Here we are Tuesday voting on it. The city is trying to slide it through without having any public input.
“If one thing came out of the election last week it’s we have a divided city on the issue of high water rates and how the city’s dealing with it. I think the people of Hot Springs want more transparency.”
Myers said a rate increase weighs heavier on customers outside the city. They pay a 50% premium but have no representation on the board. The ordinances raise their base rate, or the charge for the first 1,000 gallons of usage, $6.
“The fact that most of the people affected by this have absolutely no say in electing the people who are making that decision is absolutely wrong to me,” he said. “We should have some type of government body separate from the city board that sets water rates. I don’t think the city board members should be the ones deciding this.”
The Oversight of Retail Water Providers Act, or Act 605, the Legislature passed in 2021 requires municipal water providers with 20% or more of their customer base residing outside the city to form a nonvoting advisory committee that includes two unincorporated area residents.
The city has yet to form such a panel despite having more than half of its customers residing in the unincorporated area of Garland County. City Manager Bill Burrough said last week that an advisory committee will be formed soon.
“I don’t think anyone is saying we need to halt the Lake Ouachita project,” Myers said. “I don’t think that’s the message. It’s is there a better route to pay for the cost overrun rather than forcing the cost of the mistakes of our city government onto the voters who had no fault at all in it.”
City code allows 30 days to submit a petition for referendum, with the 30 days starting on the passage of the ordinance. Signatures of registered city voters equaling at least 15% of the total votes from the previous mayoral election are required.
Based on the 10,496 votes in last week’s mayoral race, more than 1,500 signatures would be needed. Myers said the committee was ready to begin gathering signatures this morning.
“As soon as we get a copy of the ordinance to attach to the petition for the signatures, we’ve got it ready to go,” he said.

Print Headline: Water rate increase approved; draws opposition
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