Southport residents have seen their sewer bills climb over the past three years, with base rates reaching $70.17 in July.
At the August 8 aldermen meeting, multiple people spoke out after having received their bills.
“Senior citizen, one bedroom and the bill was $95,” said resident Ennis Tobler. “No way in the world I could use all that, and I’m asking you people to consider it carefully and see what you can do about this.”
The current base rate for in-city residential customers is the result of two 35% increases. The first happened in fiscal year 2018-19; customers received an $8 discount on the past year’s rate, making it $38.50, but also had the increase, upping the cost to $51.98. In July, the second increase hit bringing the price to the $70.17.
City manager Bruce Oakley explained the increases were part of a three-year plan to pay off future debt for improving infrastructure and wastewater treatment capacity. The city took out a $26-million low-interest loan to build its own wastewater treatment plant that will produce nearly a million-and-a-half gallons per day, enough to meet Southport’s long-term needs.
The original plan was to pay for an expansion of the West Brunswick sewer plant that would provide the city with 750,000 gallons per day for two decades, but on April 2 aldermen terminated that agreement after realizing the city would need more capacity before the 20 years were up. Building a city-owned plant, officials found, would cost approximately the same amount.
Once the plant is operational, which is expected to be by 2020, Oakley said the city should be able to hold rates steady, or “hopefully” reduce rates. The city also applied for more than $8 million in grants to replace old sewer lines and lift stations, which should improve the efficiency of the system and therefore alleviate costs as well.
Until all that happens, sewer rates will continue to go up, at an approximate 2% increase each year.
Sage Seeley, who lives at Brunswick Village Apartments on East 11th Street, said her neighbors were devastated when they saw their bill.
“People were telling me after that bill, ‘I guess I’m going to have to cut corners on my medication,’” she said. “Me? I’m taking that money out of my groceries.”
The one-bedroom apartments are offered to low-income senior citizens with disabilities. Apartments do not have laundry facilities, dishwashers or outdoor plumbing. Dorothy Wade, another resident of Brunswick Village, also spoke at the meeting.
“It’s an unfair act to put that burden on people who are disabled and seniors,” she said. “I think that somebody should have thought a little more carefully about taxing us an extra $20.”
After hearing the concerns, Mayor Jerry Dove said the rate committee and city management would look at ways to assist those with low incomes. Although prices have to be consistent per each resident by law, Oakley said there have already been ideas tossed around such as working with charitable organizations or launching a fund.
Also concerned with the cost was alderman Marc Spencer, who used the time for his board comment to speak on the issue. He suggested that Southport needs to look at priorities other than tourism or appearances.
“A lot of the people who have grown up here and lived here their whole lives are not going to be able to survive and stay here,” he said.
The new wastewater treatment plant will be built on Bethel Road next to Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. Construction is expected to start next spring.