Tonight state legislators will discuss whether some utility customers in the East will get a cheaper water bill.
Senate Bill 472 would require Kinston city officials to equalize water costs for people living inside and outside the city limits.
It’s essentially a face-off between city officials and N.C. House Rep. Stephen LaRoque, who is promoting the bill as a way to even the playing field for all utility customers.
But Kinston Mayor BJ Murphy argues it would actually hurt residents and local businesses in the long run.
Stewart Smith lives right outside Kinston’s city limits. He takes pride in his garden, but each time he waters his flowers, he’s paying more for his utility bill.
“Now, the overall average I found out here in the neighborhood is $42 to $45 or $46 dollars per month,” he says.
More than 20 years ago, Kinston city officials bought an existing water system in Smith’s neighborhood. He says that’s when he was forced to pay a utility rate higher than what people pay within the city, causing his monthly water bill to double.
“It makes you feel like you’re being taken advantage of in a raw product that God gave us all,” Smith says. “I don’t mind paying for water, and I know water’s not free like it used to be back in the day. However, I would like to think that my gallon of water should cost just the same as anyone else’s gallon of water.”
Rep. LaRoque says people like Smith should never have been charged more in the first place.
“Look at it this way,” LaRoque said in a phone interview. “What if the city said, ‘If you live in an older part of town, we’re going to charge you more than if you live in a newer part of town’? Or if they said, ‘Because you are poor and you live in a poor area, we’re going to charge you more than if you live in a more affluent area’? Do you think people would be okay with that? I don’t think they would be. I think it’s the same discriminatory practice that they’re currently practicing.”
Mayor Murphy is against the bill. He says it would create a shortfall that would force the city to raise rates on everyone in town, including businesses like the hospital and Sanderson Farms.
And he uses the same word – discriminatory – to describe his side of the debate.
“I think the only entity being discriminated against is the city of Kinston,” he says. “And I can promise you that almost all that provide water or sewer outside their city limits have a very similar structure in that it cost more to provide those services, so they charge more.”
Smith says he would settle on a compromise if it means getting a lower water bill.
“A happy medium between us and the residents of the city, that would be fine, but, equal should be the key word,” he says.
Mayor Murphy says distance and infrastructure maintenance outside the city causes the rates to go up.
If the bill passes, equalizing water rates for all customers would begin in June 2013 and would be adjusted over a three-year-period.
The House will review the bill tonight, and if passed, Rep. LaRoque says it could go to the Senate for approval as early as Wednesday.