Heflin board reduces water, sewer fees for some new business customers
by Laura Camper
Nov 13, 2013 | 3316 views |  0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HEFLIN — Michelle Sutton got a surprise when she contacted the Heflin Water Works and Sewer Board to have the water turned on at her new restaurant recently.

Although she declined to give the exact amount, Sutton, co-owner of Sutton’s American Grill, said the cost was in the thousands because of a sewer system development fee.

“They were really nice, and they worked with me,” Sutton said.

The board agreed to let her pay the cost over time, but the high cost of getting the water turned on was unexpected, she added.

Tanya Maloney, director of the Cleburne County Chamber of Commerce, said she believes the high cost could deter other small businesses looking to open in the city.

“If you’re a small business, and it’s going to cost you $1,500 to turn your water on, that’s everything to you,” Maloney said.

The chamber is questioning why the cost is so high, she said.

“We just want to understand,” Maloney said. “What are we using this money for? Can we raise it without putting a burden on small businesses coming here?”

The water department charges businesses a system-development fee of $200 or $2 per gallon based on the estimated daily flow, whichever is greater. So if a business estimates it will use 30,000 gallons a month, its estimated daily use will be about 1,000 gallons per day for a fee of $2,000.

David Norton, chairman of the board, said the money is put into a fund for long-term infrastructure work on the sewer system. The board implemented the fee in June 2009, he said. At first it was just for businesses in new buildings but about a year ago, the board decided to add the fee for new businesses moving into existing buildings, Norton said.

The reasoning was, said Donald Dewberry, works manager for the board, that if a new business changes the use of the building, it could create more stress on the system than the former customer.

“Sure that’s the same building that someone else has done paid, but this business is going to go in there and really impact our sewer,” Dewberry said.

In June, the board started putting the money collected into a system development fund, which was earmarked for future development, Norton added. Right now there is $1,800 in the fund Norton said.

Maloney and Mayor Rudy Rooks attended the board’s Tuesday meeting asking for an explanation of the charges. Dewberry said the change was made to head off problems like one the board had in 1986. At that time, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management told the board it couldn’t add any sewer customers until some expensive upgrades were made in the system.

“The board didn’t have any money because they hadn’t been putting money aside for system development,” Dewberry said.

The city had to guarantee a loan to finance the sewer upgrades and even had to pay the loan for seven years before the water board could take over payments, Dewberry added.

“We’ve got to have some kind of money that if this happens in the future, it’s in reserve,” Dewberry said.

The water board has done work to promote new business, Norton said. It built a water tank at the city’s industrial park. It built a pump station for Forte Power Systems. It will take years for the board to recoup that investment, Norton said. The money has to come from somewhere, he added.

“We can either have fees like this or we can add money onto our residential customers,” Norton said.

After hearing from Rooks and Maloney, the board did make some changes to its fee policy.

Norton said the board Tuesday unanimously approved decreasing the system development fee for new businesses moving into an existing building with the same use – for instance a new restaurant moving into a building that was already being used as a restaurant – to $200, Norton said. New businesses that require the installation of a new meter will still be subject to the higher fee, he said.

The decrease will be retroactive to businesses that have paid the fee since the change was made in 2013, including Sutton’s American Grill which moved into a building that had previously been used as a restaurant, he added.

Sutton said she heard that she would be off the hook for all but $200 of the fee Wednesday morning from a staff member at the water board.

“I told her ‘Thank you’ several times,” Sutton said with a laugh. “It may not be that big to a lot of people, but to a small business, it is.”

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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