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Berkeley County, W.Va., to hike water capacity fee

August 26, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - State authorities have signed off on a Berkeley County Public Service Water District proposal to nearly double a fee for each new dwelling unit built in the county to help pay for about $30 million in projects.

"No current customers are affected," Paul Fisher, executive director of the water district, said in an interview last week.

The West Virginia Public Service Commission approved the increase to the water district's capacity improvement fee on Aug. 15. The fee will increase from $1,623 to $3,120, which is charged per "equivalent dwelling unit" or household, Fisher said.

The fees collected will be used to pay off $20 million borrowed by the water district in February, and Fisher said the district has to pay off the debt in seven years or will be forced to refinance it.

Another $10 million borrowed in December 2006 is being paid off by all water district customers over a 30-year period, Fisher said.

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The money is paying for the cost of installing about four miles of waterlines in the Bunker Hill-Inwood area; ongoing construction of a new intake system to draw water from the Potomac River; a $17 million treatment facility upgrade off Treat Water Drive and Dupont Road in the Falling Waters area; a 2-million-gallon storage tank at Cumbo Yard Industrial Park off W.Va. 9 northwest of Martinsburg; and a 24-inch main to serve the tank, Fisher said.

"When you build your water system, you want to build it like a tree," Fisher said. "In the future, most of the water is going to come out of the Potomac."

As for the growing tree's "new branches," the additional waterline under construction starts in Bunker Hill and follows Giles Mill Road to Cheshire Road, then to Three Run Road before stopping at Middleway Pike (W.Va. 51), Fisher said.

Fisher said the district's new treatment facility, a membrane filtration system, will improve water quality for customers, particularly with organic material influences such as algae.

The upgrades and additional waterlines are expected to be completed by January or February of 2009, Fisher said.

The large size of the investment reflects a tremendous growth spurt from mid-2003 to mid-2006, Fisher said.

"We got behind the 8-ball ... We're playing catch up with some of this," Fisher said.

In that three-year span, Fisher said the district's employees averaged handling 125 taps for water service per month.

That number now is hovering between 50 and 60 per month, or about half as much, he said.

"It was too much too fast," Fisher said.

Since he was hired six years ago, Fisher said the number of customers has jumped from about 11,600 to 18,700.

Mike Wiley, president of the Eastern Panhandle Home Builders Association, said the organization decided not to file a protest with the state regarding the increase after talking with Fisher about the water district's reasons for the request.

"We're still concerned that it (nearly) doubled," Wiley said.

Wiley said the increase essentially is being passed on to fewer home buyers than previous years, and is particularly harmful for affordable housing.

"It certainly doesn't help that the (real estate) market's flat," Wiley said. "It's also going to be a detriment to the water district."

The water district now employs 56 people, including three part-time staff. The water district has a $10 million budget, including debt service, Fisher said.

Looking ahead, Fisher said more enhancements to the system are envisioned to the tune of nearly $50 million over the next six years.

Part of next year's slate of projects is an emergency interconnection with Frederick County, Va., Fisher said.

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