Fannin County Water Authority rate increase

Community, News

Blue Ridge, Ga. – Discussions on whether the Fannin County Water Authority (FCWA) would see a price hike has been a hot topic this year, and the Blue Ridge City Council solidified that this rate increase would take place at their Nov. 13 meeting.

Currently the FCWA purchases water for its customers from the City of Blue Ridge at a wholesale rate. This rate had been debated early this year as being under normal wholesale prices.

Rebecca Harkins, Utilities Director for the City of Blue Ridge and Alicia Stewart, the city’s Finance Director, presented to the Blue Ridge City Council a breakdown of why a wholesale rate increase is necessary.

Fannin County, Blue Ridge, Georgia, Blue Ridge City Council, Mayor, Council Member, Donna Whitener, Harold Herondon, Kenneth Gaddis, Nathan Fitz, Rhonda Haight, Robbie Cornelius, Utilities Director, Finance Director, Rebecca Harkins, Alicia Stewart, Fannin County Water Authority, Rural Assistance Community Project, Phillip Reid, Water Rate, Increase, Wholesale

Rebecca Harkins and Alicia Stewart address city council on their findings regarding the wholesale water rate.

“Earlier in the year Alicia and I have gotten to together and calculated a wholesale water rate,” Harkins said of the internal work done by the city. “We based it on our expenditures from the water system versus what our normal everyday customer paid.”

Harkins pointed out that the expenditures and data collected was based on the previous year of 2017.

Currently FCWA purchases water at a wholesale rate of $3.25 per 1,000 gallons. This rate is approximately 25.65 percent of what a consumer directly supplied by the city pays. The goal of the City of Blue Ridge is to bring the wholesale rate up to 50 percent in yearly increments.

The proposed rate increase would put wholesale prices at $4.25 per 1,000 gallons and bring the percentage closer to 33 percent.

Harkins and Stewart also had a third party rate study conducted by Phillip Reid, Georgia State Manager for the Rural Assistance Community Project. This third party review was conducted at no cost to the city.

According to Harkins, Reid looks at the percentage of water used versus the percentage of revenue and through his findings had also recommended the rate be set at $4.25 per 1,000 gallons with an increase to $5.00 per 1,000 gallons the following year.

“The only difference I came up with is that in the second year of rate increase it would look more like $5.25 if you factor in inflation,” Harkins stated of her findings.

Council member Rhonda Haight questioned the current total amount of debt the City of Blue Ridge faces in regards to its water system. Stewart replied approximately $14 million.

This debt according to Haight must be taken into consideration when negotiating rates. Haight further commented that she felt the city should not be locked into a set price with the FCWA and should be able to evaluate rates if more debt is obtained.

Mayor Donna Whitener suggested the city holding a workshop where Reid could go over all findings and explain to the public the cost of running a water system.

While contracts are still being worked through between the City of Blue Ridge and the Fannin County Water Authority, the city council did vote to raise the wholesale water rate to $4.25 per 1,000 gallons effective Dec. 2018.

 

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Natalie Kissel

Natalie@FetchYourNews.com

Blue Ridge City Council elect meets with Stewart

News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Blue Ridge Finance Director Alicia Stewart met informally with council members elect Robbie Cornelius, Nathan Fitts and Kenneth Gaddis along with Mayor Donna Whitener Wednesday evening, Dec. 13, to discuss city priorities, projects and finances for the coming term.

In the process, Stewart presented the incoming council members with a wealth of city financial information in an effort to familiarize Cornelius, Fitts and Gaddis with the day-to-day operations of the city and the various procedures required of the City Council regarding financial operations. In addition, the finance director also fielded a number of questions from the future council members.

Among the many projects and potential projects mentioned during the course of the 90-minute session were a possible parking deck, a downtown bathroom facility and revitalizing the city pool.

The potential parking deck project, a topic of conversation for the city for quite some time, was discussed, and Whitener told Cornelius, Fitts and Gaddis the city would like to build a two-story deck on the city hall property to alleviate downtown parking congestion.

Regarding the downtown bathroom facility, Mayor Whitener explained plans have already been drawn for a two-story bathroom complex to be built near the depot building and the project is expected to be financed with grant money from the Appalchian Regional Commission (ARC).

As for the city pool, Gaddis suggested talking with representatives from Union County concerning that county’s recent city pool project. “We could mirror that (project) … that would be great for the citizens,” Gaddis stated.

Another city issue discussed at the meeting was water loss. Whitener stated Blue Ridge was once among one of the worst municipalities in Georgia regarding the average percentage of water loss. According to Whitener, the percentage of city water loss from aging water infrastructure near the beginning of her mayoral administration stood at 58 percent. Whitener added that while the city has improved in this area, maintaining those improvements has been difficult.

Gaddis, owner of All Choice Plumbing, mentioned the future state Route 5 highway expansion along with a water main replacement project for that area of the city would help with water loss. “I’ll be surprised at what percentage (water loss) drops instantly,” Gaddis added.

Prioritizing road paving was another area of concern Whitener pointed out, and the mayor stated the city at one time rated roads and streets according to need. Whitener added she would like to see a return to that policy during the next term. “We’re going to rate (roads and streets) again. That’s one of the projects that I have planned,” Whitener stated.

Later, when Gaddis asked Stewart what improvements she would like to see come from the incoming City Council, Stewart answered by saying better prioritization of projects was needed.

“We need a good five to 10-year capital plan with clear objectives and prioritize (those objectives),” Stewart said. “We need) a clear, focused idea of where (the city is) heading. what we’re doing and what we want to get done first.”

“I think we all agree with that,” Fitts told Stewart.

 

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Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Alicia Stewart Praised in Jarrard and Davis Inquiry

Downtown Blue Ridge

Blue Ridge’s  Finance Department, especially Alicia Stewart, Blue Ridge’s Finance Director was the only bright spot in Jarrard and Davis’ inquiry into the Blue Ridge City Council and operations at the City Hall.  The inquiry stated, “While it does appear that financial policies were largely non-existent or incomplete in years past, the City’s current Financial Director Alicia Stewart has worked to implement purchasing policies that are complaint with the law.  Later, in the same paragraph, Jarrard and Davis compliment Ms. Stewart saying, “The City’s Finance Director displayed a strong understanding of local government financing.”

Ms. Stewart took came to work at Blue Ridge City Hall in 2011, when the former finance director stepped down due to health reasons.  Prior to beginning as Blue Ridge’s Finance Director, Stewart worked at Land and Associates in Ellijay where she performed governmental audits for the firm.  After that she worked as the Finance Director for Calhoun for four years.  Taking the job at Blue Ridge gave her about two and one-half more hours in her day; the hour and fifteen minute commute became twenty minutes from her home in Epworth. In fact, Fannin County has always been her home except for a few early years and time away at university.

Stewart trained in accounting during the early 2000s when tales of crooked books were constantly in the news with the most publicized example being the black holes in the accounting books of Enron Corporation and the dissolution of Arthur Anderson, one of the five largest accounting firms in the world.  Needless to say, the concepts of transparency and ethics were constant lessons in her accounting and business management classes at the University of North Georgia. To keep her CPA licensure current, Stewart must take 40 hours of classes per year.  Her classes are always specific to government financing and are through Georgia Government Finance Officers Association. Blue Ridge’s hiring of a CPA to run its Finance Department is in line with the trend in local government finances.  As people retire from positions of local government finance directorships, small towns and rural counties are hiring CPAs because of their knowledge of how to create budget transparency.

Her job as Finance Director is more like being a pipeline for financial transactions.  She cannot approve purchases or write checks.  She makes sure that the withdrawals and deposits accurately represent their respective budget categories and that there are enough reserves in the budget categories.  Stewart says that her role in monitoring the finances is one of the checks and balance systems in place so that the same person cannot purchase and write the check. Her first project as Finance Director was to set different procedures for purchasing and paying for different dollar thresholds.  Also, she advises Blue Ridge in its bid processes.

Previous accounting methods used by Blue Ridge were more informal.  According to Stewart, there wasn’t conscious intention on the part of the previous generations of Finance Director; it was just how small town governments used to work.  Stewart believes that financing procedures must be black and white, clear and concise, workable without too much paperwork.  In addition to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, another reason to step up more formal accounting procedures is Blue Ridge’s incredible growth.

One accounting task that Stewart is not responsible for is the end-of-year audit.  This year Welch, Walker and Associates in Ellijay will perform the audit.  For the previous 15 years or more, Renee Bidez, CPA performed the audits.  He went into retirement last year, but still assisted Welch, Walker and Associates with the audit so that there was a seamless transition.  Georgia governments must post their audits on the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts website 

Stewart also gave an outlook of Blue Ridge’s financing.  Right now, there isn’t a lot of extra money, but overall everything is fine.  There are big projects requiring heavy expenditures coming up within the next year and one-half.  First is repair to Blue Ridge’s water infrastructure.  This includes laying water lines in Mineral Bluff and water plant upgrades.  The other extremely large expenditure is Main Street renovations including repaving, storm water drainage and sewer line connections.  She says, “We can pay for it.  We just have to plan for it.”

 

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