Published Thursday, February 8, 2001, in the Miami Herald
Miami Suburb May Double Residential Water Rates

BY DRAEGER MARTINEZ
drmartinez@herald.com

The city of Opa-locka will go bankrupt before the year ends if it does not raise water and sewer rates, Interim City Manager Newall Daughtrey told a public workshop Monday night.

``The city can't charge $1.39 per thousand gallons for sewer service, when Miami-Dade County charges the city $1.84 to process the same sewage. That's losing money right there,'' Daughtrey said to the more than 80 people attending the workshop, which was held at Nathan B. Young Elementary School.

``This problem has been going on for more than five years,'' Daughtrey said. ``The city should have gradually increased the rates to match increases by the county. But instead, the rates were lowered. This wasn't a business decision; it was a political decision. We've been taking money out of the general fund to make up the difference. But there's no more money left to do this.''

The new rates, which would affect homes and businesses, received preliminary approval from the City Commission Jan. 24. If approved, the rates would take effect starting April 1.

Water and sewer customers are billed monthly and customers pay a minimum of $35 to $37 to stay connected to the city's water and sewer lines, utility department finance manager Holly Richardson said Tuesday. The minimum bills would not change under the proposed hikes.

Under the new rates, residents will pay $1.51 per thousand gallons up to 5,000 gallons, and $2.68 per thousand gallons after that. The current water rate is $1.11 per thousand gallons, regardless of the amount used.

If the new rates are approved, a household using 5,000 gallons per month would pay $7.55 per month for water, compared with the $5.55 the city charges now. A larger family using 15,000 gallons per month would pay $34.35 for water -- more than twice the current bill of $16.65.

The new residential sewer rates also have a two-tier price plan. The proposal calls for $1.71 per thousand gallons of sewer use, up to 5,000 gallons, and $2.68 per thousand gallons after that. The current residential sewer rate is $1.39 per thousand gallons -- half the proposed high-user rate.

Using the same example, a household requiring 5,000 gallons per month of sewer service would pay $8.55, up from the current $6.95. The larger family needing 15,000 gallons of sewer service would pay $35.35 per month, compared to the $20.85 they pay now.

``We recognized that we have some citizens on fixed incomes,'' Daughtrey said. ``That's why we have tried to be fair to low-volume users, while getting us the funds we need to fix the problem.''

For businesses, water and sewer usage would be both charged at a rate of $2.87 per thousand gallons for each service. Currently, commercial rates are $1.69 per thousand gallons for water and $2.05 per thousand gallons for sewer. A business using 25,000 gallons of water and sewer service per month currently pays $93.50 per month. Under the higher rates, that business would pay $143.50.

Final approval for the rate hikes could come as early as the next commission meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Opa-locka City Hall, 777 Sharazad Blvd.

Daughtrey said the rate hikes could have been higher still. A rate study conducted by the Watson Rice accounting firm at Daughtrey's request recommended more than tripling the residential water rate and more than doubling the sewer rate. Similar increases were also proposed for businesses.

Daughtrey rejected those increases and came up with his own rates, including additional increases during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 budget year.

The third-year water rates are projected to reach $3.22 per thousand gallons for residences using up to 5,000 gallons and $4.04 per thousand gallons after that; businesses would pay $4.29 per thousand gallons. The third-year sewer rates are projected to rise to $2.98 for residences using up to 5,000 gallons and $3.54 per extra thousand gallons; business would pay $4.98 per thousand gallons.

Some residents, who had earlier agreed at the meeting that the city should not leak money with every gallon of water, balked at the rate hikes envisioned for future years.

``It seems unfair that, in the next three years, we have to make up for the indecision of our leaders of past years,'' said Celia Pruett, 40, who said she has lived in Opa-locka since she was 9. ``It's very frustrating to the senior citizens and single parents living here. I have to budget for my water bill, same as I would for rent or the electric bill.''

Daughtrey said that leaky pipes are making bills bigger for many people, but added that the primary repairs to the water system would take at least three years.

``We can't do quick fixes; they won't work anymore,'' he said.