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The Erie County Water Authority will raise water rates 2 percent effective Jan. 1, its fourth increase in four years.

The authority's 150,000 ratepayers saw increases for 2002, 2003 and again this year, when they faced a 6.8 percent hike.

By Jan. 1, the water rate will have risen 15 percent, to $2.56 per 1,000 gallons, since 2001.

The new rate will cost the average residential customer an additional $3.80 next year and bring in slightly less than $1 million, authority members said Tuesday. Total authority spending will increase to $54.9 million, 4 percent more than this year.

Officials also are considering selling advertising on the authority's two large tanks in the northern suburbs, which could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Executive Director Robert A. Mendez said more will be spent on water line maintenance and on the increased cost of power. He said authority finances were also hampered by the unusually rainy summer, when sales volume dropped to levels not seen in more than 10 years.

The authority said its number of employees will fall slightly, to 262, continuing the decline from a high of 322 in 1996.

The authority added 7,769 customers this year when it took over service to the City of Tonawanda and remaining water districts in Orchard Park. About 550,000 people reside in the authority's service area.

The authority will spend $17 million on capital improvements, including $4.2 million to replace lines in West Seneca, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga; $4 million for a new 36-inch transmission main along Sweet Home Road in Amherst; $2.75 million for a new tank in Newstead; and $1 million for new pump motors at the Van de Water Treatment Plant in the Town of Tonawanda.

The authority has plentiful reserves. Mendez estimated they will be at $24 million at the end of 2004, but they're not being used to avoid a rate increase because officials want to protect the money for future capital improvements without having to borrow.

"We prefer to pay as you go," he said.


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