The cost of water service in Martin County has doubled in the last three years and the county water district is once again seeking a double-digit rate increase.
Martin County Water District proposed a rate increase on April 1 of 12%. If approved by the Kentucky Public Service Commission, the cost of water will have jumped 70% over three years.
The increase equals $4 on a minimum monthly bill, which is a customer who uses less than 2,000 gallons a month. Currently, the minimum bill is about $43.
The PSC will hold a hearing next month to consider the rate increase. The advocacy group Martin County Concerned Citizens met in Inez Tuesday and will meet again in Pigeon Roost Park Thursday to rally against the rate increase.
The rate increase is needed to help overcome the water district’s many challenges, according to Craig Miller, the division manager with Alliance Water Resources, the company that now manages the county’s water district.
“We know there are a lot of problems, but at the same time, we have to somehow stress to Frankfort that this is out of control to say to the ratepayers ‘all we need is a little more money,’ ” said Nina McCoy, a member of the citizens’ group.
Martin County has one of the highest water rates in the state, although 40% of its residents live in poverty.
“They just can’t keep coming back to the customers again and again and again asking for their money. It’s just not working,” said Mary Cromer, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
Martin County Water District asked for an emergency rate increase on April 1, which would have immediately raised rates, but the proposal was denied. The PSC set a hearing for May 27. The commission will determine the final water rates.
Cromer said customers can submit comments about the affordability of their water bills, Alliance’s service, late fees and customer assistant funds by emailing email@example.com or mailing them to Kentucky Public Service Commission, P.O. Box 615, Frankfort, KY 40602 and referring to Case No. 2021-00154.
The water district is ‘fire fighting’
Martin County’s water has been under scrutiny for years. In 2018, freezing temperatures led to breakdowns that shut off water to thousands of residents for a week or more., and customers have long complained of brown and discolored water coming out of their taps. The district was on the brink of financial collapse, prompting the PSC to order the district to hire an outside management company, Alliance Water Resources, to take over operations in early 2020.
The water system loses about 70% of the water it cleans. The American Water Works Association, an industry group, says the standard water loss rate is 15%.
Miller attributes the high loss rate to line breaks in the system, failing water meters and some water theft. He said the water district pumps an average of 50 million to 55 million gallons of water in a month, but only sells about 13 million gallons a month.
The water district is currently $1.2 million in debt.
Miller said the district has been “fire fighting,” but his goal is to be more forward-thinking with capital improvement plans.
In the last three years, the water district has received $8.5 million in grant money but much more is needed, Cromer said.
Some of the projects had hiccups. A $2 million federal grant awarded in 2018 for tanks and pumps to serve a federal prison in the county is stalled while the district looks for a tank site. Plans to improve a raw water intake and the water treatment plant, along with water line improvement projects in Warfield and Collins Creek, were delayed due to overbids. The water district was awarded about $5.3 million for those projects. Water line improvements in the Lovely community are ongoing, which are funded by a $1.2 million federal grant.
Martin County is expected to get $2.1 million in grant money later this year and may be eligible for more through the the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority and an infrastructure bill now being negotiated in Congress.
Customers still wary of drinking the water
Meanwhile, residents remain hesitant to drink the water. The Community-Engaged Drinking Water Health Pilot Study in 2020 found 88% of customers don’t drink the water, though the water system was in compliance with overall Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
“If customers think their money is not being handled properly, that adds to their angst in paying their bills,” Miller said. “And of course if customers think the quality of their water isn’t good, that also adds to their frustrations. It’s understandable.”
Miller and Martin County Water Board Chairman Jimmy Kerr agreed the water district has a perception problem.
Kerr recalled last year during the district tournament for high school basketball, the other schools were chanting “We have water” to the Martin County team.
Kerr said this is the best the water district has been managed in 30 years, but acknowledged that distrust is ingrained.
Consistently providing quality service is the way to build back the community’s trust in the water system, he said. But the water system is plagued with bad infrastructure, which causes numerous breaks and water outages for customers.
Things are looking up since Alliance took over the water district more than a year ago, Kerr said.
Miller said water quality in the county is good and that he uses the water for drinking, cooking and bathing. He said the quality could always improve.
McCoy said the water system has come a long way, but urged the district to believe customers when they complain that their water has a bad odor or is discolored.
“It was a measure of how far we’ve come in a year because we would’ve been out of water for two or three weeks prior to them getting here,” Kerr said. “That’s the honest truth.”