July - September 2018
First of all, congratulations to everyone! As you may know, J.D. Power and Associates recently released the results of its Customer Satisfaction Survey. Of 88 large water utilities rated, we were third in the US behind Gwinnett and Orlando. In general, the J. D. Power ratings are done by a panel of about 40,000 individuals across the country. For this particular poll, only those served by one of the 88 utilities participated. Points were given in six categories, with each category weighted based on its importance (as determined by the panel): Water Quality (most important), Reliability of Service, Cost, Billing Options, Communication/Outreach, and Customer Interactions (least important). I’ve requested information as to how we compare with others in each category, but haven’t received it to date. Nonetheless, I and the Board of Commissioners are very proud of what the Water System has been able to accomplish. You should be too!
I took the opportunity to bring this up on June 12 at the BOC millage “retreat” (more on this below). I was given a chance to make the case for an increase in our rates. We haven’t had an increase since 2012 and our 2018 expenses will be substantially greater than our 2018 revenues. We’ve been able to continue to operate by utilizing uncommitted reserves, but these will be nearly depleted at the end of this year. I mentioned the J. D. Power Survey and pointed out that Gwinnett’s rates are nearly 50% higher than ours, suggesting that higher rates don’t always result in lower customer satisfaction – other factors are of much greater concern and even rates substantially higher than ours don’t seem to have hurt Gwinnett’s overall rating. I don’t know how much of a role the comments played, but, by the end of the presentation, we definitely appeared to have the votes needed to get a rate increase. In fact, the Chairman suggested that I bring it forward for approval as soon as possible. We expect to take the proposed increase forward on July 10 for implementation beginning September 1, 2018. If approved, this should allow us to operate without further depletion of our reserves and return us to a solid financial footing.
The “millage” portion of the June 12 meeting was somewhat less decisive. The Chairman had hoped to get support from the District Commissioners for a millage increase of at least 1.1 mils, which would allow continued operation, but wouldn’t address most of the County’s capital needs. He had requested that any Commissioner who would not support 1.1 mil increase identify which services he/she would propose to cut because of the resulting shortfall. Three of the District Commissioners were unwilling to identify a specific level of service/millage rate that they would support. The fourth District Commissioner maintained that a millage increase of 1.9 mils would be needed to restore services to pre-recession levels and that a millage increase of something similar would be appropriate to begin to address the County’s potential decline.
It was suggested during the meeting that it is the Chairman’s responsibility to set the budget whether or not a consensus among the Board members is achievable. With the Chairman unable to get clear direction from the Board, he made the decision to move forward with a budget that he feels is appropriate, including a millage increase of 1.7 mils, despite apparent opposition to an increase this large from some of the Commissioners. It is anticipated at this writing that the proposed (by the Chairman) increase of 1.7 mils will be discussed at upcoming public meetings and will be voted on July 25. If enacted, this revised millage would go a long way toward balancing costs and expenses while restoring a reasonable service level.
Unfortunately, compensation levels remain a very significant concern. Even though the Chairman has supported pay raises philosophically, he has not been able to make funds available to address pay inequities within the General Fund or the Water Fund. If a substantial increase in the millage is approved, I hope that we can convince the Chairman and the remainder of the BOC to address compensation and to make pay adjustments that will allow us to reward, retain, and attract quality employees. Stay tuned, and remember how important it is to participate in the election process as the positions of candidates become increasingly varied.