The Gretna Town Council held public hearings for its proposed budget, adjustments to the town code, and increases in the town’s water and sewer rates in a meeting at Gretna Town Council on Thursday, June 16. The only public comment on the budget came from the Chief of Gretna Fire and Rescue Ben Meeks, who asked if any of the town’s money would go to fund the department. The crew currently operates with around 70 volunteers and four full-time employees, though they’re seeking to fill out the paid team to five and eventually six crewmembers. Meeks noted.
“We run the biggest call-coverage area and the highest call volume in Pittsylvania County,” Meeks said.
“The county has increased our funding and there should be increased funding coming to us this year, but with all that being said we’re having to come up with a couple hundred thousand dollars extra through fundraising, grants and other things. Any help you guys could give us would be helping go towards staffing and equipment," he said.
Mayor Keith Motley apologized for leaving Gretna Fire and Rescue out of the budget, and cited turnover in key town employees as the reason they were left out of the proposal.
“I know you guys came last year and requested that we put you down as a line item in the budget; that information didn’t get left to us and that information didn’t get processed into this budget,” Motley said.
Motley said that the Town Council would meet separately to discuss how they might be able to work Gretna Fire and Rescue into the budget. He also noted that the department is still scheduled to receive money under the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus package passed by Congress last March. The next round of ARPA funding will be delivered on Friday, July 1.
After Meeks discussed details of the funding and answered some questions from the Council, no other citizens came forward to comment and the hearing was closed.
Following the budget session, the Council opened a brief hearing on adjustments to the twon code to keep it in conformity with this year’s changes to the Code of Virginia. The changes have to do with Title 46.2 — “Motor Vehicles” — and Title 18.2 — “Crimes and Offenses Generally” — of the state code.
One citizen asked if the adjustments could be made clearer in the newspaper advertisements for the hearing. He noted that while the advertisements will refer to elements of the town and state code, the number assigned to various sections of those codes are often meaningless to the lay citizen. To make things cleared, he asked that future advertisements include brief descriptions of what laws will be changed.
Town Attorney Michael Turner said that the point was “well-taken” and agreed that the goal of the town should always be to inform the public and be transparent. However, he did note that longer advertisements are more expensive, though he said he would keep the comment in mind when drafting the next advertisement.
The final hearing of the night was on the proposed increases to water and sewer rates. Both water and sewer rates will increase 4% under the current proposal. Water will go up $2.26 for in-town residents, from $56.42 to $58.68, and up $4.51 for out-of-town residents, from $112.83 to $117.34, both rates for the first 6,000 gallons of water. Sewer rates will increase $1.43 from $35.79 to $37.22 for in-town residents and $2.86 from $71.58 to $74.44 for out-of-town residents, both rates for the first 6,000 gallons of water.
During the public comment period, Christine Schwitzerlitt spoke up to say that senior citizens like herself were struggling financially and that any increase would impact them.
“You have to make a choice whether you’re going to have to buy your medicine, you’re going to have to buy your food, if you’re going to pay this bill or that bill,” Schwitzerlitt said. “Now I got a son who will help me, but some of them people that’s just on a Social Security check, they can’t keep this increase going up if it’s just a dollar … The senior citizens are hurting in this town.”
Motley replied by noting that the town’s rate increases are not due to an arbitrary decision by the Town Council, but part of paying back a series of long-term loans taken from the federal government. If they didn’t increase their rates, Motley said, the loans would be called in full, crippling the town’s budget.
“The increases that we’re making every year are not just because we randomly want to,” Motley said. “We had to submit last year a three year plan of five, four and three. So last year we had to go up 5%. This year we go four, next year we go three. At the end of next year we get notification from them; they want to know what our next three year plan will be.”
Motley also said that the town cannot simply pay back the principle of the loan out of funding surpluses or other avenues of funding.
“The federal government wants to see that your water rate is enough to cover the debt you owe them,” Motley said. “At one time we were so low they said that we were one of the lowest rates throughout the state of Virginia and that we weren’t charging enough for our water to service the debt we owed them. They want to see that the rate you charge is within line of their parameters, so that they can say that we can pay their loan back.”
Interim Town Manager Bill Gillespie said that the loans — repaid over a period of 40 years — were taken from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.
“They give low-interest loans to rural communities, and Gretna got three of them,” Gillespie said. “One of them was for a roll-water intake, and the other two were improvements to the water plant.”
At least one loan will be on the books until 2034.
The Town Council also reversed course on a proposed 67 cent increase on garbage pickup from $16.80 to $17.47. The 4% increase was advertised for the hearing, but Councilmember Michael Bond recommended the Council either keep the rate at $16.80 or drop it lower, given that the town’s sanitation fund is operating at a surplus. Motley instructed the town’s staff to consider the idea against expected fuel costs for reconsideration when the Town Council next meets.
The Town Council will meet to formally vote on the budget, which includes any rate changes, on Friday, June 24, at noon in the Gretna Town Hall.