GARFIELD -- The city's Water Department will be affected by passage of Senate Bill 386 holding water providers to a higher standard and forcing consolidation of departments that can't meet the standards. The Garfield Water Department serves 269 customers.
In March 2020, Garfield city residents approved a half-cent sales tax dedicated to infrastructure improvements on the water system. That tax is scheduled to sunset 24 months from passage.
Mayor Gary Blackburn is now asking voters to make the tax permanent.
A public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 13, to answer residents' questions before the next City Council meeting which begins at 6 p.m. The special election is slated for Sept. 14, 2021.
Revenue from the tax would be used solely for the Water Department.
"We're going to replace sections of the city's infrastructure where we know we have problems," Blackburn said. "We've fixed so many leaks, we've decided that's where we want to start."
Blackburn said the city currently has a 28% water loss, which is unacceptable.
"We have to have a plan," the mayor said. "This is the Council's plan, to take an area of our system and set a jumper meter and determine water loss there."
He said Ashmore subdivision was evaluated first and had a low rate of water loss.
"We can't afford to look for leaks," he said. "You can't chase 1,000 gallons. We can't send someone out to look for it. Someone has to report it to us. Now, we're looking off Seamster Road behind the post office. We're monitoring Seamster, Little Henry, Markey Lane -- about 20 customers ‚ for a month."
When evidence is found of water loss, he'll determine whether it warrants closer inspection and will take listening devices to listen to individual meters.
"It's very time intensive. It costs us a lot -- chasing that 28% -- and that's the methodology we're using," he said, adding that when areas of significant loss are found, the infrastructure will be replaced with funds from the tax revenue.
"At the end of 24 months, we'll have made a dent in that 28% water loss, but I'm not naive enough to think we'll have it under control, because we won't.
"So, in September of this year, we're going back to the citizens and asking them to make that half cent permanent. I see this as a 10- to 15-year project to get that 28% down to what I consider an acceptable number of 15%," Blackburn said.
Senate Bill 386 was approved in the regular session of the 93rd General Assembly.
"I like that it forces the council's and committee's compliance," Blackburn said of the bill. He said water systems for Benton County Water System at Avoca, Lost Bridge Village and Gateway will some of the local water providers affected.
In Garfield, the Water Department is run by the City Council.
"They get elected to council and find out they run a water system," he said. "This is going to give them some training. I think it's a good thing. I think the audit process will help."
The bill requires persons operating a water system be properly trained.
"They're the ones who are going to have to be trained," he said of the City Council members. "The majority of the Council will have to have that 8-hours worth of training or we'll be deemed non-compliant."
The city has one full-time and one part-time employee in the Water Department now. Blackburn said Duncan Art, a Pea Ridge High School graduate, is "the future of our Water Department."
"All of this is critical, the board or the council needs to have a very acute knowledge of where the system that the money they're managing is going. That brings me to the point of future capital expense. That's where that half-cent sales tax comes in. That's the only way the Garfield Water System will be able to pass this audit," the mayor stressed.
"With 269 customers, we're not going to be able to generate enough money and have people absorb the rate. It's just not there," he said. "Without that half-cent sales tax to fund capital improvements, when this legislation kicks in, the commission will come to Garfield, all things being equal, and say 'Garfield, you're going to have to join with Lost Bridge Avoca, Gateway."
"Two years ago I proposed to the council, because of our sheer numbers, that of the 17 providers that Benton public water authority sells water to, we're the smallest," Blackburn said. He said that according to a report of daily metered usage from May 2021, average daily usage for Garfield is 52,000 gallons, for Gateway 151,000 gallons and for Lost Bridge 80,000 gallons.
"We all get our water out of that tower on Blueberry Lane," he said.
Blackburn said he has talked to members of the Lost Bridge Water Board about possibly joining forces.
"Two years ago when I presented the problems in the water department," Blackburn said. "We had public forums and explained the situation. The council and public said they want to maintain control of our system so they overwhelmingly passed the tax."
"The council's been very good stewards of that money," he said. The continuation of that tax would be the best chance for Garfield Water Department to remain a stand alone water system.
If the tax continuation doesn't pass?
"It's just math. And the law," Blackburn said. "It's not my law; the state of Arkansas wrote it."
Blackburn said he polled city residents about three years ago and the response was that roads and water were the two priorities.
"I really think this is good legislation, at the end of the day, water is the one element that affects every one of us," he said.
"We're all in this together. There's no other commodity on this earth, that's been given to us by God, that we all have to have. This is it! It's the biggest thing in our lives," Blackburn said of water.
"I'd like to see the citizens' will be done; if in July and August, they come and say we want Garfield to maintain control of its water system, I'll break my back to see it happens. I believe this council has demonstrated they'll listen. This changes everything!"
"They're starting with the smallest systems, looking at the small guys first," he said.
Blackburn said "Garfield's Achilles' heel" is a payment owed to Arkansas Natural Resources Commission repaying $500,000 borrowed 10 years ago to expand the system.
"We borrowed that for a high end subdivision that was supposed to come in, but it didn't come to fruition. We picked up about 70 customers. We borrowed all that money, but it was a bad investment," he said.
"I personally think we're better off than most of the systems around," he said.
A portion of
Senate Bill 386
An act to amend the law concerning retail water providers and related service; and for other purpose
Section 1. a. 1. Oversight of providers in the state is primarily handled by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and the Department of Health;
The oversight of these providers is spread out and results in the inability of a single state entity to monitor and help initiate necessary changes in public access of water, rate structures, the sustainability of the providers and the protection of consumer rights;
While local control is important, the current landscape of providers has the potential to create inefficiencies in service and instability in fiscal management;
Combining smaller providers may be necessary in some areas to guarantee dependable and plentiful providion of water and to avoid unsustainable rate increases;
14-234-802 Fiscal distress - improvement plans - rates and rate studies
c.1. A provider shall obtain a rate study on the following schedle:
A. By July 1, 2024, and every five years therafter for a provider that serves five hundred or fewer customers;