HOT SPRINGS -- The petition to put Hot Spring's water rate increase to a vote of the people continues to circulate despite the city's pledge to suspend new connections if the signatures are brought to City Hall.
Former Garland County Justice of the Peace George Pritchett said he's leading a group of several dozen people who are gathering signatures ahead of the Dec. 15 submission deadline.
They will need the signatures of close to 1,600 registered city voters, a threshold representing 15% of the 10,496 votes cast in last month's mayoral race, to compel the Hot Springs Board of Directors to call a special election on the rate increase ordinance it adopted last month.
"I don't know whether we're going to get there or not, because the people who were leading it all of a sudden backed out of it," Pritchett said, referring to Justice of the Peace-elect Dayton Myers and City Director-elect Dudley Webb.
They abandoned the petition drive last week, telling The Sentinel-Record the city's pledge to suspend new connections convinced them to stop gathering signatures.
"The city intimidating us, someone might consider it to be extorting us, not to gather any more signatures in exchange for them not turning off the water is exactly why we decided not to do it," Myers said after the Dec. 1 news conference in which City Manager Bill Burrough announced new connections would be suspended if the petition drive continued.
Burrough offered to forgo the temporary suspension through the Dec. 15 submission deadline that he was considering if Myers destroyed signatures he and others had gathered, according to text messages Myers provided the newspaper and the written response Burrough provided after being asked for comment.
"There's a lot of pressure on people not to sign them," Pritchett said of the petition. "We still have a window where we can get enough signatures without Dudley and Dayton. We're not throwing in the towel yet."
Pritchett and others have questioned the timing of the rate increase ordinance, which the board put on the agenda the day after the Nov. 8 election that had three incumbent city directors on the ballot.
The city announced the items the board would review at its Nov. 9 agenda meeting two hours before polls closed.
Many of the candidates that challenged the three incumbents seized on rate increases the board adopted to service debt issued for the Lake Ouachita water supply project.
Base rates for residential customers inside the city have increased from $5 a month at the end of 2017 to more than $13. They rose from $7.50 to more than $19.50 for residential customers outside the city.
The ordinance the board adopted last month raised base rates $4 for residential customers in the city and $6 for customers outside the city. The increases will be fully implemented next November.
"The first meeting after the election they ask for this, and then they immediately start threatening if they don't get it," Pritchett said.
"This smells worse than the sewer plant."
The latest increases will service the roughly $50 million in new and refinanced debt the board authorized last month to complete the over-budget and behind-schedule supply project. Burrough said the city needs an additional $45 million.
It has committed $118.5 million as of Nov. 21, according to spending reports from bond issues the board authorized in 2018 and 2020. The city reported a $2.62 million balance from the $106.64 million in proceeds from the 2020 bonds and a $7.95 million bridge loan the board authorized from the general fund in August.
The city committed $6.54 million in proceeds from the 2018 bonds to Crist Engineers, the Little Rock firm that's designing and overseeing the supply project. It's been awarded more than $10 million in contracts related to the project, or 9% of the $110 million estimate it provided when the project began in 2017 and 2018.
Burrough said Crist Engineers' recommendation to bore a 2,600-foot micro tunnel through Blakely Mountain added close to $6 million to the cost of the lake tap and intake structure below Blakely Mountain Dam.
The tunnel will allow raw water from the lake to gravity flow to the new treatment plant the city is building off of Amity Road.
"We're paying more up front to save generations the cost of pumping over that mountain," Burrough said last week. "It will save millions in the future."
Engineers also recommended putting the new treatment plant at the south end of the service area, 17 miles from the raw water source, to reduce water age for customers on that end of the service map and improve distribution system hydraulics.
The large diameter raw waterline connecting the intake to the plant is the costliest project component, accounting for more than $40 million.
Burrough said the city is committed to more than 4,000 connections since water demand peaked at 23.05 million gallons a day in 2012. He said the water system is "overextended" and struggles to meet demand during peak times.
Repealing the 2013 policy that restricted connections and extensions in the unincorporated area has increased the risk of running out of water during prolonged periods of hot, dry weather, he said.
"We need this water," Burrough said. "We need it for our existing customer base. There is no smoke screen. It has to happen. No one likes rate increases, but we all like water."