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Utility rates to rise in York Co.

As York County's water and sewer costs rise, county leaders may ask their customers to pay more.

The county hasn't raised water and sewer rates in nearly a decade, but the cost of those services has increased significantly, said County Manager Jim Baker during Saturday's York County Council budget retreat at the Baxter Hood Center in Rock Hill.

The county's cost for water and sewer services has increased 83 percent from a decade ago. The county purchases water from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, Rock Hill and Fort Mill, and sewer service from Rock Hill.

County staff members will recommend a rate increase in the upcoming county budget, County Manager Jim Baker said.

How much of an increase isn't yet clear.

Baker wants to assure customers the rate increase won't reflect the costs the county has absorbed already.

"(Customers) shouldn't be fearful of a huge increase," he said, adding that if rates continue to climb as they likely will, the county must look to customers for help.

The county last raised rates in 2002 and has since absorbed cost increases, Baker said. The county's water costs increased by 117 percent from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 47 percent from Rock Hill, and 25 percent from Fort Mill.

How to provide water and sewer services to county residents at reasonable prices into the future has been an ongoing concern of county leaders.

They are currently in talks with Rock Hill and Fort Mill about long-term options to buy water from them.

The county should work toward reducing its dependency on Charlotte-Mecklenburg which provides about 37 percent of the county's water, up from 26 percent nine years ago, said Mark Kettlewell, York County engineering director.

Surplus tapped again

A preview of York County's upcoming fiscal year budget showed county officials aren't recommending any tax increases - but expect revenues won't meet expenses. The difference will be drawn from reserves, continuing a trend of recent years.

The county will use about $5 million from reserves to meet its projected $85 million budget for 2012-2013, a $4 million increase from the current year's $81 million budget.

The county's reserve is expected to fall from more than $32 million at this year's end to under $29 million over the next fiscal year, which will still leave a healthy reserve by county standards - nearly 34 percent of the county's total budget and about $7.4 million more than the county's targeted surplus minimum of 25 percent of the total budget.

New expenses are a $1.9 million increase in personnel costs, including some new and reclassified positions, and a 3 percent merit pay raise for employees, which could change depending on the council's input, Baker said.

The increase also include $1.5 million in upgrades to the county's radio system, a new DNA forensics lab for the sheriff's office, increases in fuel prices, resurfacing projects and other expenses.

The budget assumes no increases to tax rates.

Councilman Curwood Chappell said he won't support any new tax increases while the county is still suffering from high unemployment and drawing from its reserves.

Councilman Chad Williams asked staff members to look for "things that we've been doing for years and years and years that may not be necessary anymore."

He asked them to consider how departments might "go paperless."

He also said he supports a "true merit system" for giving pay increases to employees.

The council discussed giving raises to employees in last year's budget talks, but a majority favored waiting.

Another attempt to provide one-time incentive pay at year's end also failed.

The last pay increases for county employees was in October 2008.