Winterville reduces electric rates and why Farmville can’t

January 31, 2022 (This is not a faith column. Please verify these facts and figures for yourself.)

In January 2022 the Town Council of Winterville voted unanimously to reduce electric rates by 10% for three months for its residential electric customers. According to the audit report, Winterville currently shows a 100% fund balance. Winterville also had reduced residential electric rates by 10% for April and May 2020, in order to help residents cope with pandemic-related expenses.

You might remember that the Town of Ayden gave its residential customers a 10% discount on the electric portion of their April and May 2020 bills as well as a 1% electric rate reduction for all customers starting May 13, 2020. Residential and business customers in the City of Washington, NC saw a 30% reduction of their electric rates for the month of April 2020 to help with the economic effects of the pandemic.

In May 2020 Pitt County lowered its property tax rate to offset the increase that property owners saw due to revaluation.  The Greenville Utilities Commission had scheduled a 6.8% increase in the water rate for its retail residential customers to start July 2020, but graciously decided to halt the increase, in order to help out customers burdened by COVID-related financial stresses.

The Town of Farmville has not lowered its electric rates for residential customers at any point during COVID nor has Farmville stopped hikes in water rates. The Town of Farmville increased residential water rates by 6% in July 2020 and again by 6% in July 2021. Farmville kept the property tax rate the same in the spring/early summer of 2020 after the revaluation, which meant homeowners plus land and building owners had to pay more in taxes due to higher property values.

For more history, the Town of Farmville increased residential water rates by 8% in 2016-2017 plus increased rates in 2017-2018 and in 2018-2019. The fiscal year of 2019-2020 was the only one recently when there was no increase in Farmville’s water rates.

Another Farmville cost that increased was the amount to operate a food truck. The fee had been $100 per year, but was changed to $75 per day. For a food truck which sells food twice per week within town limits, the cost went from $100 per year to $7,500 annually. The Town of Farmville is currently being sued by the owner of a food truck, represented by a libertarian law firm, due to the onerous fees being charged. This lawsuit undoubtedly will cost us taxpayers money. As of the summer of 2021, the Town of Tarboro charged $25 per year for a business to bring food trucks to the public street adjacent to their property. Snow Hill had a $25 per year peddler’s fee while Winterville charged $25 per three months for a food truck permit.

Why is it that nearby municipalities could and have reduced certain rates to residential customers while Farmville could not or has no? Why do they seem to welcome food trucks while Farmville has made it almost financially impossible for food trucks to operate in town? There are no simple answers to these questions.

It is often difficult to get explanations that are direct and are not misleading. For example, we are told that the Town of Farmville has not increased property rates for years. This is true but does not mean property owners have not had to pay more in taxes. Revaluation most often means that your property value goes up, and therefore your taxes go up. Also, the Town of Farmville might have to pay an increase for the wholesale cost of water from the Greenville Utilities Commission, but the cost of actual water represents only a small portion of our total residential water bill. For example, a 6% increase in the cost of actual water from GUC would not necessitate an increase of 6% in our total water bill. At times, it has been presented as if a 6% increase in the total water bill were a logical conclusion for such a scenario. That is false.

In the past several years, the Town of Farmville has spent more money than was allotted for projects, a few of which were parking lots. The cost-to-the-town to create 13 parking spaces and improve Bonnie’s Alley skyrocketed from $200,000 to $522,000 in 2019. Farmville commissioners voted unanimously to spend $340,000 to develop a private owner’s parking lot and area, including fancy, beautiful lighting, at the former train depot in exchange for 14 months of rent for the temporary library. In essence, this was like the town paying $24,000 per month for the use of the building. (The commissioners unanimously rejected the $298,000 plan for this individual’s parking lot/area in favor of voting to spend $42,000 more of taxpayer money.)

As of the summer of 2021, $768,902 was raised from donations and fundraisers for the new Farmville Public Library building. Almost $200,000 in addition to that was given from the sale of the Farmville Economic Development Council’s small business incubator. The Town of Farmville agreed to pay $119,519 for furnishings and technology while then getting a $350,000 USDA grant for those things. After the fundraisers, donations and grants the Town of Farmville is left to pay $5,637,914 over the course of fifteen years, which includes interest on the $5 million loan.

Currently, the Town of Farmville is supposed to be building a new fire station. This much-needed project will cost millions of dollars. Where will we get the money? Given all of the delays, due to lack of funding, the Town of Farmville now will have to rent the current Main Street fire station from its new owner. (The town entered into another trade for that property.)

It is time for Farmville taxpayers to ask some tough questions regarding town spending. It seems untenable for the Town of Farmville to build a new fire station, to pay off the debt for the library and to pay for multiple parking lots while also refraining from raising taxes or cutting town services. Looking at websites which compare electric and water rates in a certain vicinity shows that the Town of Farmville charges well more than most surrounding areas. It would be difficult for Farmville to give us customers a break on our utility bills for a variety of reasons, but a big part of it has to do with overspending and not trying to safeguard taxpayer money.

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