More senior citizens in Villa Rica can now seek a discount on their water and sewer bills after the City Council on Tuesday increased the income limit for the benefit.
The council also re-endorsed the new city charter, approving tweaks that had been requested by the General Assembly, setting the stage for the charter to be submitted for approval as the 2018 legislative session winds to a close.
The change in the income limit for the senior discount is seen as a way to make more of the city’s senior citizens, who generally live on a fixed income, eligible for a reduction of their utility rates, which were increased for all residents this year.
The council approved raising the required annual income limit for the exemption to $30,150, or 2.5 times the federal poverty level. Previously, the limit had been set at $24,120 per year, or two times the poverty designation.
But the council’s vote on the new rate was not unanimous.
Ward 3 council member Leslie McPherson was the sole vote in opposition. Before the vote, McPherson pointed out that there were many families in Villa Rica, some with small children, who could also use a break on their utility bills.
The rate hikes had been integrated into the city’s 2018 budget as a means to make the city’s water, sewer and sanitation services pay for themselves, rather than be subsidized by tax revenues.
The increases went into effect in February and may already be having an impact. Financial data released during the council meeting indicated that the income loss in the city’s water-sewer fund was 40 percent less than it had been over the same period last year.
The budget made significant changes in the discounts the city offered to senior citizens. Previously, anyone aged 65 or older could apply for a discount. But with the new budget, the discount would only be available to those seniors with a certain household income level.
According to the city’s figures, 670 customers had qualified for the senior discounts before the new rate hikes went into effect in February. After the budget set the income level at $24,120, only 189 seniors were able to qualify.
Mayor Jeff Reese had been concerned that the income level adopted in the budget would make many low-income seniors in the city ineligible for the discount. Shortly after the budget was adopted, Reese vetoed that portion of the budget, but later rescinded that decision after city staff assured him they would develop additional procedures to refine the eligibility level.
Also during the council meeting, councilmembers approved several edits to the city’s charter that had been requested by the Legislative Counsel’s Office of the General Assembly.
Those edits, according to city attorney David Mecklin, were relatively minor and included such changes as condensing portions of the document that the council approved on Feb. 8.
The council’s unanimous vote on Tuesday to re-adopt the document now clears the way for the document to be introduced in the state House of Representatives, voted upon, and then passed over for similar action in the state Senate. It must be approved by both bodies before the end of the 40-day legislative session, which is expected on March 28.
As a piece of local legislation, the charter is immune from the “Crossover Day” deadline, which occurred on Feb. 28. That’s the date most pieces of legislation must have cleared one house and be eligible for consideration by its opposite chamber.
The city charter has had a rocky road toward passage. In 2016, council members began considering the first major update to its governing document in 40 years. That project was sidetracked during the whole of 2017 but taken up again with new urgency at the beginning of the year.
Council members held a series of marathon meetings to hammer out a new, updated charter; one which would pass with unanimity, as Mecklin told them a unanimous vote was vital if the city’s legislative delegation were to agree to introduce the charter to the Legislature.