OUR VIEW: Utility rates not going up this year, but increase seems inevitable next year

Published 10:30 am Friday, June 16, 2023

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The 2023-2024 city of LaGrange budget has not yet been approved, though that is expected to happen at next week’s meeting on June 20.

It appears, if the budget passes as currently presented, that utility rates will not increase this upcoming fiscal year. In the original budget presented, the city was going to raise utility rates in order to fund raises for the LaGrange Police Department.

Those raises are still going to happen, taking the starting salary up to $60,000 for a LPD officer, a mark that would be competitive, if not surpass, most law enforcement agencies around the state of Georgia. You can argue the amount of the raises is too high, and after reviewing the starting salaries for surrounding police departments, we think it’s fair to question if the city is going too far with the increase. However, at last check, there were over 20 officer positions available, so it’s clear the LPD needs to hire quality people quickly.

We also think a raise for officers and a higher starting pay should result in higher quality candidates to choose from. That’s a good thing. 

But, how is the city funding those raises?

Well, after crunching some numbers, the city is not going to use a utility rate increase to fund those raises. Instead, the city is going to use some of its remaining American Rescue Plan funds to support the raises for this upcoming year. 

We’re sure residents are thankful that their utility rates aren’t going up this year.

However, the raises, which total just under $1 million, will need to be absorbed into the budget next year. Once you’ve added that nearly $1 million in salaries to the payroll, that means they’ve got to be paid for in the years ahead. That likely means the city will again need to discuss raising utility rates in the 2024-2025 budget. 

As costs continue to rise — hopefully plateauing at some point — it’s fair to question if it’s better to raise rates marginally this year, so that consumers aren’t hit with a larger increase next year all at once. That was Councilman Nathan Gaskin’s suggestion, as part of a back-and-forth discussion that reflected his apparent irritation on not raising utility rates this year.

It also feels important to note that for this year the city was discussing a relatively small 2-3% utility rate increase. For some of you reading this, that’s a few dollars a month you’ll probably never miss. For others, who need to make every dollar count, it’s a more significant change.

We’ll also say that for a city that gets a vast amount of its revenue through utilities, LaGrange has some of the cheapest rates in the entire state of Georgia. The numbers from the Public Service Commission rate studies every summer and winter prove that.

Even with an increase, LaGrange would have relatively low utility rates compared to most providers around the state. That’s a good thing.

Leaving salary arguments for another day, hiring more police officers is a good thing.

Is it a good thing to kick the can down the road a year on the utility rate increase? 

We know no one wants their utility rates to go up, but something will have to give next year.