The Town of Luther’s water system is getting an upgrade, but not without some troubles. The project to replace a main water line between Main/Hogback and Ash from First street to Fifth street began earlier this month. The funding for the project came after a grueling months-long process involving application for a federal grant, and matching funds from the town for the $140,000 project. The project was announced last August.
However, through a series of unfortunate events, the work has created headaches for Town water customers as the town water supply has had to be shut off to address problems with the installation. It’s also caused headaches for Town utility staff and contractors working on the underground water pipes with leaks, valve issues and even some difficulty boring through a layer of sandstone.
No time is opportune for the outages, but naturally the water shut downs have happened unexpectedly a few times during the last week or so – during dinner time, laundry time, bath time and also on Monday when students were out of school for Martin Luther King Day (but at least they weren’t at school which might have caused early dismissal). The water issue also forced the temporary closure of local restaurants. Each time, the water was restored as soon as possible.
The inconvenience brought complaints on social media, and some utility customers were furious. Many complaints focused on the lack of communication about the water work and the water outages. While not everyone is on social media, The Town of Luther’s Facebook page generally has announcement on the water situation.
Luther Mayor Jenni White said she knows the water outages are inconvenient but is grateful for the work that was done to get the funding for the needed upgrades, and the payoff with improved water service with this main replaced, eventually. She also noted that personal attacks against staff and volunteers are frustrating.
Meanwhile, the Town Board is considering raising water and sewer rates for customers. Officials say the town’s Public Works Authority does not pay for itself. At the January Town Board meeting, the board voted to moved $6,000 from the general revenue fund to LPWA to pay for sewer, trash and water. Similar transfers happen most months. The town generates most of its revenue from sales and use taxes. According to the Oklahoma Tax Commission, Luther sales and use taxes were about $43,000 in December 2019, meaning the town used about 13% of its monthly revenue to fund utilities.
During the January Town Board meeting, town attorney Beth Anne Childs commented that she was surprised at Luther’s low rates for trash, sewer and water. Childs has spent more than 20 years in municipal law in Broken Arrow and for other cities and towns. Utilities are like “cash cows” in other municipalities, she said.
Luther water and sewer rates were raised in 2017. The board arrived at a compromise, raising the rates at a lower rate than first proposed, after listening to a public comment from those who complained about an increase. At that time, no one could remember the last time water rates had increased but some thought it was in the 1980s.
In 2017, Luther had about 250 utility customers.
The Town Board is expected to accept public input on the utility rate discussion.
The “cash cow” comment seems in poor taste. The town should make sure the utilities support themselves but to speak of what sounds like gouging customers is repugnant.