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OUR VIEWS

Holding off on water rate hikes now right move

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Pasquotank water customers can probably be thankful there’s a contested commissioner election next month. Otherwise, they would likely now be facing higher water rates.

Pasquotank commissioners voted unanimously last week to return a series of proposed water fee hikes back to the county’s Water Committee for more review, essentially overriding a narrow vote by the board’s own finance committee in September to recommend the fees’ adoption.

The county’s water staff had recommended the increases in September, reporting that water fees in Pasquotank are lower than in neighboring counties and don’t always cover the cost of service. What’s more, the county’s finance officer said the county’s bad debt had grown by $20,000 over the past year, due in part to the county charging a lower fee for water service deposits.

Based on that information, commissioners’ finance committee — made up of the county’s seven commissioners — voted 3-2 to raise the county water service fee from $10 to $25; increase the county water service disconnection fee from $25 to $40; and raise account deposits from $60 to $100. Voting with the majority to recommend the fee hikes were Commissioners Charles Jordan, Jeff Dixon and Lloyd Griffin. Voting against the increases were board Chairman Cecil Perry and Commissioner Frankie Meads. Commissioners Bill Sterritt and Joe Winslow were absent.

Explaining his change of heart last week, Jordan — who introduced the motion to return the proposed fee hikes to the water panel — said he had heard from a number of county residents concerned about having to pay more for water service. That’s likely true: at least one citizen showed up to criticize the fee increases at last week’s meeting, complaining they would especially harm senior citizens and low-wage workers.

But left out of Jordan’s explanation is the fact that he’s on next month’s election ballot. He and Sterritt, who criticized the proposed fee hikes and said the water committee needs to “come up with a more realistic plan,” are the Democratic candidates for two at-large commissioner seats in the Nov. 6 election. Two Republicans — Josh Tunnell and Barry Overman — are also seeking the seats.

There is nothing wrong with Jordan changing his mind with an election in the offing. Savvy politicians do it all the time. The question is will it stay changed after the November election? The problems that convinced him to vote in the finance committee to recommend the rate hikes aren’t going anywhere.

We think Commissioner Frankie Meads offered a good idea: raise the fees gradually. That way, the water system will get the revenue it needs but those senior citizens and folks struggling to pay bills won’t get hit with higher fees all at once. It would be both the compassionate and responsible thing to do.

Speaking of water, or in this case, Water Street, a consultant paid by the city of Elizabeth City has completed a traffic study that proposes turning the street next to the city’s waterfront into a two-lane road to free up more downtown parking.

The Kimley-Horn report recommends converting Water Street between Ehringhaus and Elizabeth streets into a two-lane road by eliminating both an outer lane nearest the sidewalk and turning-only lanes. The move would create another 28 parallel parking spaces, says the city’s engineering firm. The firm is also studying what eliminating the Water Street traffic lane in front of Museum of the Albemarle would do for parking. City Manager Rich Olson has estimated it could result in an additional 20 parallel parking spots.

City Council seems supportive of the changes, which would require approval from the N.C. Department of Transportation because Water Street is a state-maintained road.

We also like the changes — both for the additional parking they could bring and the reason pointed out by Councilor Billy Caudle: the potential for improved safety. With more development of the downtown, and creation of a pedestrian destination like Mariners’ Wharf Park, there are more people walking along Water Street now than when the additional traffic lanes were added. Traffic almost naturally travels faster when it has more room to do so. Reducing that room — in this case the number of lanes — will force traffic on Water Street to slow down, thereby making it safer for pedestrians.

Eliminating the extra lanes won’t help the traffic backups on Water Street in the afternoons when the Camden Causeway bridge’s gates are raised. But then, it doesn’t look like anything short of motorists choosing another route to get to Camden will fix that problem.

Olson recommended councilors hold a public hearing on the proposal if they decide to proceed with the change. Getting public feedback is always a smart idea, particularly when you’re contemplating a change like this one. We’d encourage city officials to proceed with getting DOT’s approval for the traffic changes on Water Street and then presenting the idea to the public.

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