By Amy Wenk

A handful of Atlanta residents expressed their opposition to water rate increases at a public hearing May 21.

The meeting was held by the Atlanta City Council’s Utilities Committee and discussed the potential 27.5 percent hike in water and sewer fees this year, as well as a total increase of 81 percent over the next four years.

Helene Mills, chairperson of the Council on Aging, spoke adamantly on the effect the rate increases will have on senior citizens.

“We are not going to be able to live here in the city of Atlanta,” said Mills, who is over 80 years old.

Another resident, Andrew Greene of northwest Atlanta, expressed his discontent over the increasing water and sewer rates. Greene, who lives off of disability leave and social security, said there is little room in his fixed income for these escalating prices.

“I think this is shameful,” said Greene. “We are struggling over there.”

Despite these comments, it was city officials who did most of the talking. Robert Hunter, commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management, defended the rate increases, saying they are necessary to fund past capital projects.

“The rate increase for next year is dealing with revenue we need to pay for the projects and the money we have already borrowed,” said Hunter. “We cannot turn the clock back on what we have achieved.”

Hunter went on to describe several projects the city has recently completed such as the Nancy Creek Tunnel, which cost $162 million and lead to a 60 percent reduction in the volume of sewer overflow.

“We have replaced 55 miles of drinking water mains in neighborhoods, bringing better water pressure, better fire protection, better service to our customers,” he added.

Hunter also spouted a laundry list of improvements on the service side of the watershed department.

“Spills from sewers have reduced from more than 1,000 a year to less than 300,” he said. “Sewer inspections over the year increased by 100 percent. Catch basins cleaned increased by 94 percent.”

In addition, Hunter said his department has worked hard to keep costs in line despite inflation over the last four years.

“First of all, we have done a tremendous job of holding our line on cost,” he said. “Our budget has actually been reduced between the proposed 2009 budget and the actual expenses in 2007 — so two years — by almost 5 percent. Our budget is down from last year’s budget by 17.3 percent, and we are abolishing 148 positions out of this budget.”

All in all, Hunter said the city has no choice but to raise rates in order to fund the capital projects that have improved the water and sewer system in Atlanta.

“We have two consent decrees on wastewater,” said Hunter. “We have two consent orders on drinking water, and we need to invest the money. We have a federal judge who demands it; we have a federal consent decree that requires that we do it; we have state orders and we have an obligation to our customers.”

If approved by city council in June, the new water rates will take effect July 1.

Also at the public hearing, Commissioner Joe Basista of the Department of Public Works discussed four ordinances that increase permit fees for contractors who do work in the public right-of-way.

“These fees have not been updated since the 1990s, so most of the current fees are more than ten years old,” said Basista. “These fees have been updated to cover the actual cost of public works personnel to either permit or inspect or do work associated with the permits. The intent is to actually cover our cost of providing that service to the folks who want a permit to work in the right-of-way.”

The first permit in discussion was for those residents who contract with the city of Atlanta to do sidewalk and curbing repairs. If approved, these permits would increase about 25 percent, said Basista. Another is for workers who need access to the right-of-way to install a sewer tap or a water meter. This permit would increase from $40 to $85.

“What that basically covers is the cost of us to process the permit and the cost of our inspector to go out and make sure the work was done correctly,” said Basista.

The third permit increase is for the temporary closing of a lane of traffic in the public right-of-way, which is proposed to rise from $20 to $35. Lastly, permits allowing for construction in a right-of-way for a new driveway, curbs or sidewalks would increase from $10 to $45 if approved.

“All together these fees would probably increase the revenue to the city by about $200,000 to $250,000 a year,” said Hunter.

The city council will vote whether or not to increase these fees in June. If approved, the new fees will take effect July 1.