By Debbie Adams
At their December 7 meeting, Vinton Town Council members joined with the Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA) to announce transfer of the town’s ownership and operation of the Vinton Water and Wastewater System to the WVWA. The transition process is expected to take about six months, with the Authority expected to take over the town’s systems in July 2022. Many details and decisions associated with the transfer remain under discussion and development.
One of the early steps in the process was to invite the community to an open house meeting at the Vinton War Memorial on the evening of January 25. Representatives from the WVWA and the town were available at stations throughout the ballroom to answer specific questions from the community on topics of water quality, customer service and billing, finance, engineering, field operations, and human resources (employment opportunities).
The No. 1 concern of those who attended seemed to be: “Will our utility rates go up?” According to the WVWA, a comparison of the local region utility rates (monthly combined water/wastewater based on 5,000 gallons usage) indicates that Town of Vinton customers currently pay on average $66.35 per month. WVWA combined monthly rates are $66.50. The town and the Authority “anticipate most bills to be roughly the same moving forward without major increases.”
Customers will notice one distinct difference in their utility bills– they will arrive monthly, rather than bimonthly. After July 1, 2022, the Authority, rather than the town, will bill customers each month for water used the previous month.
The Authority employs a “Winter Averaging” system which calculates residential sewer flow based on water consumption during the winter months (January, February, March) when customers historically use the least amount of water– they are not watering lawns and gardens, filling pools, washing cars. Customers are billed for their actual water usage, but the maximum sewer volume charge is based on the calculated winter average. (An adjustment is made if you use less than your calculated winter average during any month.) The average is recalculated annually and is assumed to be 5,000 gallons as a default during the first year of service.
Customers will still have many options for how to pay their utility bills– by mail, phone, online, by automatic bank drafting, or even text, 24 hours per day. They will be required to set up a new account with the Authority for bank drafts or update online billing information.
While Town of Vinton staff will no longer be receiving utility bill payments in the drive-through at the Municipal Building beginning in July, the town anticipates having a drop box available in town for dropping off payments.
After July 1, billing questions will need to be addressed to the Water Authority customer service staff rather than the town treasurer’s office or Public Works.
Another frequently asked question at the open house was whether the quality of the water would change. The Town of Vinton water system is based on groundwater wells. The Water Authority will distribute water from the Carvins Cove Reservoir, water from a combination of the current wells and Carvins Cove, or even exclusively from the existing wells for a time.
The Authority’s water system cannot support 100% system coverage with Carvins Cove water until system improvements are made in several phases. The Authority says it is likely they will need to make some pumping improvements to service town customers at higher elevations. These are some of the details still under discussion and development.
A map on display at the open house indicated that in the first phase of operations, the downtown area of Vinton will, for the most part, receive 100% of its treated water from Carvins Cove. Another section of the town, at a higher elevation, will most likely receive a blend of 50% well water and 50% Carvins Cove water for a time. The third phase will continue to receive well water until improvements are made. The Authority believes they can move fairly rapidly on these improvements.
Another question on water quality concerned the hardness of the water from calcium and magnesium content. With groundwater wells, the water flows naturally over rocks and through the soil picking up minerals. The more calcium and magnesium present, the harder the water– visible through mineral build-up and residue on pipes, faucets, sinks, and refrigerator water dispensers. The current hardness measured in Town of Vinton water from groundwater wells is about 130 parts per million. Carvins Cove water generally is softer with a measurement of 26-42 ppm. (This is not a safety issue.)
Citizens were also curious about the transfer from town to Water Authority systems. That transition should not be disruptive, or even noticeable, to customers. There will be no interruption in service.
The town is already fully integrated with the authority when it comes to wastewater service, having been a partner in the Regional WPC Plant for many years, so almost no work will be needed except normal ongoing maintenance.
Potential extensions to homes not currently on the town’s water system were also a topic of interest– whether homes or businesses could look forward to Water Authority services in the future.
Town staff in Planning and Zoning will continue to assist with building and development projects in the town. If new or expanded connections to water and sewer are required, town staff will facilitate connection with the appropriate Water Authority staff.
A final question of the evening was, “Why is this being done; how does it benefit the citizens of Vinton?”
The response from the town and the Water Authority is that “working together regionally provides better rate stability, drought protection, infrastructure planning, and maintenance for all customers. The Authority’s footprint across multiple jurisdictions supports economic development in the entire valley through high quality and quantity of water, sewage treatment capacity, and competitive rate structures.
“Customers in the Town of Vinton will receive a high level of service and an investment in water supply, treatment, and delivery that is more readily available on the larger scale the Authority can offer.
“For existing customers in the Authority’s service area, the addition of approximately 5,200 Town of Vinton water customers provides a larger base in which to spread the Authority’s operational and capital expenses.” The Authority currently serves about 64,000 customers. Increasing the customer base won’t result in lower rates, but more likely in a slower increase in rates.
Transferring water and wastewater services from the town to the WVWA has been a topic of discussion for many, many years. The town has been “looking for ways to provide the highest level of service and stability for the utility system moving into the future.” This council and staff have concluded that to be proactive, the “best way to do that is through a regional approach with a broader customer base and additional resources.”
With this transfer of service, “the town will be able to focus more of its time and funding on community development projects” rather than improvements to the water system. In fact, the town’s system has been deteriorating at almost a faster rate than it can be replaced without substantially increasing rates.
A GIS map of the town available at the open house indicates that there are water lines in the Town of Vinton that were installed in 1939– exorbitantly expensive to replace and repair.
Vinton Public Works employees won’t be stretched so thin with their multiple responsibilities when line repairs and replacements are left to the Authority’s Field Operations crews on a 24-hour basis.
With the transfer of ownership and operation from the town to the Authority, the Authority will pay the town $3 million over three years; the town will also retain the balance of the Utility Fund (approximately $2.5 million) that will be used for other capital improvement projects within the town such as traffic signal replacement, construction/repair of sidewalks and storm water improvements. The town will no longer bear the expense for wastewater treatment.
The Authority will assume 100% of the town’s debt associated with the Utility System (approximately $9 million). Vinton will provide the Authority with $5.7 million of ARPA funds for water/wastewater-related capital improvement within the Vinton/East Roanoke County Utility Service Area.
The Authority believes the agreement is fair to both the town and the WVWA. Nearly every expansion or acquisition for the Authority has involved some debt assumption. The Authority will be increasing revenues and benefit from additional customers.
The Town of Vinton will complete current utility system improvement projects by June 30, 2022: SCADA system updates of $400,000; 3rd Street sewer lift station rebuild of $2,000,000; the system-wide radio read meter replacement of $1,600,000; and the 1st Street Water Line Replacement, $400,000.
No jobs will be lost due to the transition from Town to Water Authority utility systems, although some current town staff who work on the utility system and with utility billing may become Water Authority employees moving forward.