Clearing the waters on your water rate questions
From Brunswick County Chairman Randy Thompson
Nearly four years ago, all of us were placed in an unimaginable position when news broke that GenX was discovered in the Cape Fear River. The presence of PFAS compounds in our drinking water continues to spark regional concerns about how they might impact our residents’ health and our county’s economy in the years to come.
That’s why the Brunswick County Commissioners made the proactive decision in 2018 to install an advanced low-pressure reverse osmosis system at our plant to effectively remove PFAS from our water while expanding the plant’s capacity to support our tremendous growth.
We all knew installing reverse osmosis would come at a cost—but perhaps not as much as you thought. The average county residential customer will pay around $34.68 a month for their water; that’s less than $10 more a month and still keeps us right in line with the average for other coastal North Carolina communities and the state median.
Meanwhile, the average county wholesale customer—those who purchase water from a municipality that buys its water from the County—are estimated to see less than an $11 increase per month, assuming your municipal utility directs their rate increase down to you at all.
However, some of our municipal wholesale partners have started to speak up at the eleventh hour, claiming that they will have to raise their customers’ water bills significantly should the County’s water rates go into effect.
Let’s be clear: Brunswick County has no control over how much our wholesale customers charge their customers. It is a wholesale customer’s decision whether and how they will pass on any increase down to their customers or if they can absorb it into their current rate structure. Right now, that increase is $2.36 per 1,000 gallons.
If your municipal water provider is announcing that water customers will see a significant rate increase, it might be time to ask your municipal officials what they are doing to ensure that their rates are factoring in differences between residential and commercial customers and meter sizes.
Remember—we have been planning for years to bring reverse osmosis to Brunswick County. Work is under way on this project as you read this. We cannot turn back now.
Of course, this often leads to the question: Why isn’t Chemours paying for Brunswick County’s reverse osmosis treatment system?
We have every intention of holding Chemours and DuPont responsible for the millions of dollars we are spending on reverse osmosis—that’s why we entered into a joint lawsuit with other utilities to seek monetary damages.
But lawsuits take time, and so does constructing a reverse osmosis system—that’s why we’re building one now. Should Brunswick County receive any proceeds from the lawsuit, we will review how we can use them to support all our customers.
Another question we hear a lot: Can Brunswick County change the timing of when the rates go into effect?
No one could have predicted in 2018 that we would be facing the aftermath of a global pandemic when it came time to pay off the debt for the reverse osmosis system. We know it has been a difficult year. However, we have to pay back the debt we are taking on to pay for this project, and refinancing is not an option.
The County timed the start for the new rates in January 2022 to avoid charging customers too soon before debt payments had begun. We are hopeful that this timeframe will allow customers more time to recover before they go into effect. Brunswick County is also absorbing some of the costs for the project—so not all the costs are being directly passed on through water rates.
Finally: Has Brunswick County considered other ways to pay for the project? What about the federal funding the County received for COVID-19?
Of course. In fact, the County applied for federal and state funds, but these ultimately did not work out due to a variety of factors. Meanwhile, the County’s allocations from the Coronavirus Relief Fund were restricted to pandemic- and health-related expenditures only.
As for American Rescue Plan funds, counties and municipalities are still waiting for more guidance from the federal government on what criteria we must meet when using the funds and whether ongoing infrastructure projects like ours even qualify.
We value our water customers and our partnerships with our wholesale municipal customers, but its important to remember the reason we are having this conversation in the first place.
We made a decision as a community to remove PFAS from our drinking water as soon as possible. We must keep our eyes on the main goal—protecting our future and health for years to come.
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