Water costs leave Lake Caroline feeling soaked
Lake Caroline residents will pay 75 percent more for water each month

By EMILY BATTLE

Date published: 1/8/2005

Utility to seek another hike

Joseph Straub knows the price of everything rises sooner or later, but the 75 percent increase he and other Lake Caroline residents face in their water bills seems steep to him.

But William Seltzer, owner of the private company that provides Lake Caroline's water, said that increase won't be enough to cover the company's operating expenses, much less make about $500,000 worth of needed improvements at the water treatment plant. He's already planning to ask state regulators for another rate hike.

Lake residents have been paying a flat fee of $21.67 a month for water since 1988, but a December ruling by the State Corporation Commission allowed the Ladysmith Water Co. to raise that to $38.07 beginning this month.

That's more than twice what the average Virginian pays, and more than what many area utilities charge for water and sewer service combined.

"We're getting up there to where the price of water is really becoming significant," said Straub, who is president of the Lake Caroline Property Owners Association.

Ladysmith Water Co., the only utility Lake Caroline property owners are allowed to buy water from, asked the commission in 2002 for permission to raise rates to $55 a month. The company said the increase, more than double what lake residents were paying at the time, was needed to help it keep up with water-quality regulations.

The property owners association challenged the increase. After the commission examined the company's accounting, the state set the maximum fee at $38.07 a month.

The commission is also requiring the company to follow through with $445,000 worth of treatment-plant upgrades state and federal regulators have requested.

Straub and other residents of the 850-home community say they realized some increase was inevitable, but many are worried about the company's plans to seek even higher rates. Straub said the homeowners association is already researching how to fight that battle.

Although state law requires that a utility wait a year before applying for another rate hike, Seltzer wants to do that as soon as possible.

"Of course, we're going to have to go for new rates," he said. "We think [the $38.07 fee] was a very bad result.

"New regulations are coming down constantly about our plant, about our operating requirements and we have to pay our bills."

For example, the Virginia Department of Health recently asked the company to hire a consultant to help control the levels of chemical byproducts from the chlorination process.

Randall Scott, who has owned a home at the lake for about three years, has a problem with the flat monthly fee residents pay. With no meters to track each home's usage, there's no incentive for anyone to conserve, he said.

"A household with five children is paying the same as a weekender," Scott said. "You might as well turn on your hose and let it saturate your lawn."

The state has asked the water company to evaluate the cost of installing meters. Seltzer said he'd like to add meters, but he has to spend money first on keeping his plant in line with government standards.

The rising fees have some residents thinking about an alternative water supply.

Don Cotter, a 10-year resident, said the community might want to eventually hook up to Caroline County's water system. But it's unclear what it would take to do that and how much it would cost.

"We have a lot of 'I don't knows,'" Scott said.

To reach EMILY BATTLE: 540/374-5413 ebattle@freelancestar.com

Date published: 1/8/2005