Faced with aging, failing water pipes, city leaders mull rate hike

Published 9:04 am Wednesday, August 26, 2015

First, the good news.

City taxes won’t go up next year and Picayune residents will be paying slightly less in school property taxes. In addition, the city has budgeted cost-of-living as well as merit raises for employees.

However, during Tuesday’s a budget hearing, city council members were told in no uncertain terms that costly repairs to the water lines are needed, sooner rather than later.

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Eric Morris, the city’s public works director, said that annually the city wastes over $100,000 simply because the water lines have outlived their lifespan.

“I’ll make it short and sweet,” began Morris. “I’ve been public works director for over four-and-a-half years. Over that time, I’ve been able to clearly assess that our water infrastructure is in sad shape.”

He told the council that he’d been working with Dungan Engineering to prepare a map showing the extent of the repairs, along with the cost. Morris said the city spends over $100,000 just on extra manpower hours alone patching the pipes and an extra $37,000 on producing some 183-million gallons of water that’s wasted due to cracked pipes.

City Engineer Brooks Wallace, who is with Dungan Engineering, said the system is in need of costly repairs.

“Just from a real broad overview, you could easily spend $20 million now to rehab your water system and get it to a like new condition,” said Wallace.

For comparison, the city’s proposed 2016 budget is just over $24.5 million.

However, Wallace and Morris both suggested the city tackle the project piecemeal and they indicated that an $8.3 million job could solve many of the worst issues.

Morris said the city has a big problem with transite pipe, a type of piping popular 50 years ago.

“This pipe has been in the ground since the late ’60s and when it was first manufactured, it was thought to be the best thing since sliced bread. Consequently when they came out with it they were putting it in every subdivision that was being built.”

Picayune has about nine miles of the pipe, all of which needs to be replaced because it’s cracking and brittle, Morris said.

“I can tell you it’s quite easy to reach in here and break off a piece of it, and I can tell you that the whole crew cringes when we find we have a leak and it turns out it’s transite,” he said.

Morris added that steel pipes in the city date back to the 1940s, and they need to be replaced, too, and much of the pipe in the system needs to be replaced with larger pipes, to comply with new laws.

Wallace said about $8.3 million would replace the transite and the other pipe that’s too small.

To pay for the project, Amber Hinton, the city clerk, suggested taking out a loan and then paying that back through a rate hike that would only affect the heaviest water users. Anyone using more than 4,000 gallons a month would pay more, but about 40 percent of residents in Picayune wouldn’t see a rate hike because they don’t use that much water.

Exact rates were not discussed, but Hinton said the rates would be in line with state suggestions, which work out to 10 percent profit.

In addition, the rate hike is not part of the city budget unveiled Tuesday. Mayor Ed Pinero said that’s because the water utility is separate from the city budget, and so raising rates will be done through a special ordinance.

The council is expected to pass the proposed budget at the Sept. 1 meeting, but Pinero couldn’t give an exact timeline of when the proposed special ordinance would come before the council.

“We’ll adopt a budget Sept. 1 and during that meeting we will establish a date to propose the ordinance and determine if we will or will not move forward with the project,” he said.

The Sept. 1 meeting will be at city hall in Picayune and it will begin at 5 p.m.