TALLULAH FALLS – It appears customers of one of the state’s smallest municipal water systems face a steep rate hike, possibly 30 percent or more.
An audit of the Town of Tallulah Falls Water System by the Georgia Rural Water Association found system revenues to be at a $35,605 deficit — roughly 45 percent lower than expenses.
Financial figures presented during a public hearing Thursday night show expenses at $64,655 and revenues coming it at only $29,050.
Currently, most of the town’s 71 residential water customers pay $18 to $23 per month, according to officials.
That number may need to be increased to as much as $33 to get the town’s water system enterprise fund to be self-sustaining, according to figures presented at the public hearing.
While the town has only 168 residents, Tallulah Gorge State Park draws thousands upon thousands of visitors throughout the year.
Park Manager Jennifer Jones reminded town officials of that fact during the public hearing.
Mayor Teri Dobbs acknowledged Jones’ comment, saying, “The state park is our largest user.”
Councilman Larry Hamilton, who oversees the town’s water operations, elaborated further.
“You all’s usage, if you converted it into individual family homes would be the equivalent of 55 residential,” Hamilton told Jones.
“So, if the state park decides to build a well, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Jones told town officials. “I’m just throwing it out there.”
Dobbs took the opportunity to point out additional information.
“The state park’s water bill is paid [by Georgia Power Co.] because of the relationship with Georgia Power,” Dobbs said.
“We pay a percentage,” Jones said. “The park pays a percentage.”
If a well is drilled at the state park and is successful, it could mean a more than $13,000 hit for the Tallulah Falls Water System’s annual revenue.
Jones told town officials rates for its residential customers likely would have to increase much more than proposed “if the state park decides to go that route.”
Dobbs stressed the likely rate increase is not a profit-making venture.
“It’s to break even,” Dobbs said. “This is not to even have considerable maintenance, to try to improve lines that have been suggested for ISO rating – none of that is on the table today. This is just bringing us to break even. Then, once we break even, if it is the town’s desire to improve the system for fire safety, water pressure, whatever, then we would look at grants and loans, but you have to balance the budget as any business must balance the budget.”
Keith Nelms, town resident and chair of the Tallulah Falls Downtown Development Authority, said he sees the need for the rate increase.
“I support the town in moving forward and truly running like a business,” Nelms said.
Mayor Pro Tem Deb Goatcher offered a possibility on why town officials did not realize the water system operational deficit.
“For public clarification, for people who are not always in meetings, we have combined our police budget and our water budget for a long time, so until we sat down using better business practices and started looking at exactly how much does it cost us to produce water – that was when things became really clear and when we did actually do the work to separate out salaries and things like that,” Goatcher said. “Not as an excuse, but as an explanation for why the picture was not crystal clear. We were looking through muddy goggles for a long time. Honestly, 20 years ago, the water situation was horrible so just the fact that it has improved as much as it has, people were just happy that we had some water.”
At least twice during the public hearing, underperforming fire hydrants were discussed.
Fire Chief Mike Early stressed that the town only has seven hydrants that are classified as underperforming and those are in areas where elevation change comes into play.
Dobbs said the town council will vote June 13 on the proposed rate change that would go into effect July 1. Town council budget meetings, open to the public, will take place at 4 p.m. May 15 and 4 p.m. May 29.
“I’m sorry that the past administrator, it wasn’t brought to his attention,” Dobbs said. “I don’t know why. One thing that I said when I came on board if something comes to the table good, bad or ugly, it’s going to come to the table, and we’ve got to address it. The ball has been kicked down the street too long. The numbers are the numbers.”