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WESTMINSTER : Council Faces Wrath for Water Rate Hike

Furious over a water rate hike that some say has increased their bills fivefold, dozens of residents on Tuesday night demanded that the City Council rescind the increase.

“There’s no way we can afford this,” resident Trudy Gibbons said of the rate hike unanimously approved by council members in March. “I’m worried a lot about fixed-income families and families with children. A slight increase, I think we could see, (but) some people are paying triple or more than that.”

During the council meeting, several residents shouted derisive comments and suggested that council members could face recall drives over the issue. Mayor Charles V. Smith ordered a bailiff to remove one woman who persisted in addressing the council on the issue even though she arrived more than an hour after public comments were heard.

The council is bitterly divided over reconsidering the rate increase. Smith, along with Councilmen Craig Schweisinger and Frank Fry Jr., voted repeatedly to block attempts by Councilwomen Lyn Gillespie and Joy L. Neugebauer to force the issue onto the council’s agenda.

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The councilmen contend that dropping the increase would create a $3.4-million deficit and force the loss of dozens of city jobs and a reduction in police and fire services, an argument the councilwomen dismissed as a “scare tactic” to intimidate citizens and employees.

The council approved the rate increase six months ago, saying that the city historically had charged too little for water. The move doubled monthly water rates from 63 cents to $1.26 per 748 gallons, or roughly from $11.37 to $23.39 for the average family. The county average is $24.25.

At Tuesday’s meeting, resident Howard Jones delivered a petition signed by more than 120 people that said they “strongly protest a 100%-plus increase in the water rate and demand that a vote by the people, not the council, be taken to decide” if the rate increase should remain intact.

“I think (Smith, Fry and Schweisinger) are afraid of a public hearing because . . . if they had to abide by what the people said, I think the water rates would be rolled back,” Jones said Wednesday.

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Schweisinger told the audience Tuesday that residents whose water bills more than doubled were simply using more water, prompting jeers from the audience. On Wednesday, he added that the council majority believes that reconsideration of the rate increase can wait until the city’s midyear budget review.

City Accounting Manager Jim Antoniono said the the average bimonthly water bill for a family is about $45. Bills that show jumps bigger than the rate hike could be the result of billing errors created by the department’s aborted attempt to change to a 30-day billing cycle, he said.

City Clerk Mary Lou Morey said that city staff would make a presentation explaining the water rate changes at the council’s next regular meeting on Sept. 10.


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