Last year at this time Raleigh was mired in a historic drought and Mayor Charles Meeker's used much of his state-of-the-city address to talk about the need for water conservation. During his address on Monday, Meeker noted that water issues have taken a backseat to other matters this year, thanks both to the tanking economy and the fact that Raleigh has received 50 inches of rain since last spring.
But Meeker still used a portion of his 12-minute speech to talk about conservation. He said the city needs to renew its focus on conservation by making a push to install more low-flow devices and to use less drinking water to irrigate lawns. (The city is also expected to adopt tiered water rates later this year, a system that charges customers higher rates the more water they consume.) More notably, Meeker on Monday took a jab at City Council members who have made an issue of rising water rates.
Raleigh increased water rates by 15 percent in July, and City Manager Russell Allen anticipates that another 15 percent increase will be needed to pay for expensive capital improvements that are now being made to the system. Meeker said Monday that Raleigh's water rates remain among the lowest in the state and he went on to explain why conservation should be pursued even if it temporarily increases water rates:
"This is a challenge very simply because you sell water to pay for the improvements ... at the same time the City Council doesn't want to increase the rates because the customers don't like rate increases and the customers happen to vote in city elections. But our community has got to be better than that ... we don't need to be using drinking water to irrigate our lawns as much as we are ... even though it may not be popular in the short run because it will affect rates, it's the right thing to do in the long run."
This debate over water rates is likely to resurface at the City Council's special budget work session in March and then continue on until a new budget is adopted in May or June. Councilmen Thomas Crowder, Rodger Koopman and Russ Stephenson have all expressed their displeasure with water rates increasing and are likely to press hard for the city to find some way to spare residents a rate increase this year. Meeker made his position clear in Monday's speech.