For the first time in years, the 3,200 customers of Pine-Strawberry have had unrestricted water access, but that access comes at a cost.
To continue with improvements, the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District board said last Thursday that it must raise next year’s budget by 47 percent to continue improvements to the water delivery system.
The board unanimously approved a $4.58 million budget, which included an unallocated $800,000 for infrastructure and other improvements and $247,000 to move pipes for the Pine Creek Canyon Road widening project initiated by Gila County in the fall. This year’s approved budget is $3.12 million.
Board chair Gary Lovetro justified the budget, saying the board will use every penny to improve the district and assure that residents have a safe and dependable water source. Lovetro said this year has been the first time in the 25 years he has lived in P-S where he didn’t have to worry if water would come out of his tap.
When Brooke Utilities owned the system, water restrictions were frequently in place and sometimes residents had their water cut off due to shortages.
Now for $36 a month, residents get a guaranteed 3,000 gallons of water a month.
“We have done a lot for this community,” he said.
Since taking over the water system from Brooke, the district has bought several wells, is drilling a new well and made improvements to existing well sites, he said.
“We have deep water wells now that are drought resistant,” he said.
Water advocate Sam Schwalm remained critical of the budget, especially the board’s decision to raise property taxes instead of raising rates.
“By avoiding a rate increase, the increase gets far less scrutiny by the public. Last year’s rate/budget meeting was held in the school gym and had at least 100 people attend,” Schwalm said.
“Many were very vocal and lots of good questions were asked. In fact, an error in the rate schedule was pointed out by a member of the public and it was corrected before the board voted on it. This year, there might have been 10 people at the budget meeting.”
Board member Mike Greer said the board is doing its best to keep rates low while still making improvements.
While the board initially promised it wouldn’t raise rates for two years, that statement was made with inaccurate information from Brooke.
“We got involved because of water outages,” he said. “We have done everything we can to supply an adequate water supply.”
Some residents questioned the capital improvements the board planned to make with an unallocated $800,000.
Becky Sigeti, accountant with CH2MHill, said the money is undesignated because it will cover unexpected costs, such as tank or storage repairs and replacement. Not all of the money needs to be spent in one year.
Schwalm says if the board had lowered that fund, property taxes could have remained the same.
Lovetro said it was necessary for the board to raise property taxes.
“Things don’t come for nothing,” he said.
And with a property tax increase, Lovetro said residents could write it off on their taxes, which they couldn’t do with a rate increase.
A $250,000 budget item that the board wasn’t anticipating is the Pine Creek Canyon Road improvement project. The Gila County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to widen the road, which subsequently requires all utility companies to move services. The district is forced to replace and move 4,900 feet of pipe to accommodate the new road. Work is expected to begin in March 2012.
The district is looking at putting in fire hydrants during construction, but has not reached a final decision.