River Road PSD customer rates could be lowered in 2021, MUB deal moving on for state approval

MORGANTOWN — The acquisition of the River Road Public Service District by the Morgantown Utility Board looks to be moving on for state consideration after approvals from Morgantown City Council and the Monongalia County Commission in recent days.
The lone sticking point when it comes to city council discussions has been the rates River Road customers are currently paying and will continue to pay under MUB — though there may be some relief coming sooner than initially expected.
It has been explained that the 781 River Road PSD customers will continue to pay water rates approximately three times higher than MUB customers living in Morgantown for the next 27 years. That increased rate is due to a surcharge tied to a 30-year, $3 million bond secured by the PSD in 2016 for system improvements.
In keeping with its standard procedures, MUB General Manager Tim Ball has said MUB will freeze those existing rates until that debt is paid off, in 2047, at which time River Road customers will pay the same rate as other MUB customers.
However, Ball said River Road customers will actually get at least some relief on their water bills long before then — in October 2021.
Ball explained that while the larger and more recently attained debt has dominated discussion of the acquisition, the River Road PSD actually has two long-term debts — the aforementioned $3 million, 30-year bond from 2016 and a $1 million, 20-year bond from 2001, which will mature in October of 2021.
“When that happens, upon the maturity of the series 2001 bonds, the debt service obligation of the River Road customers will be reduced and we can, and should, reduce their rates accordingly at that time,” Ball said.
Ball went on to say that reduction would likely translate to an estimated drop of 12.5 to 13 percent on customer bills.
Morgantown City Council voted 4-3 to amend the ordinance setting the rate, fees and charges  tied to the acquisition upon second reading on Tuesday to include language ensuring  River Road customer rates would be reexamined upon the retirement of any long-term debt.
The amendment was passed against the advice of legal counsel, with Ron Dulaney, Barry Wendell and Bill Kawecki voting in the minority.
“It’s certainly within council’s discretion to adopt language such as this. It’s not  prohibited. I think it may be inadvisable as a planning measure because it creates some uncertainty about what rates would be in effect at a future time and what those rates might be,” City Attorney Ryan Simonton said. “But if it’s council’s wish to move forward with it, there is not a legal problem with doing that at this point.”
Council adopted the necessary purchase agreement, acquisition ordinance and amended rate schedule upon second reading on Tuesday. The acquisition’s  bond ordinance must undergo a third reading.
The county commission held a public hearing and provided an order authorizing the acquisition on Wednesday. It will now move on to the West Virginia Public Service Commission. Ball has said the PSC’s ruling will likely take four to six months.
MUB has been operating the district — to which it already provides treated water — through an operating and maintenance agreement since shortly after the PSD approached the county commission last summer about relinquishing control to MUB.
It was explained the PSD struggled to maintain staffing, making management and operation of the system difficult.
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