Salem Looking for $6.77 Water Increase

Salem Looking for $6.77 Water Increase

City Council members listen to members of the public.

The City of Salem is looking at an $11 million project to renovate its aging water treatment system and to do that it needs to increase the average water bill about $6.77. 

Mayor Troy Merry wants to divide that increase up over three years, but at least one person at Tuesday night’s town hall meeting wants to get it over with. 

“Rather than have people upset over three years, do it at one time and get it over with,” said Mike Pennington. “I understand what the city has been working with. For every $1 the water department takes in, it spends 99 cents.”

The proposed $11 million treatment facility near Lake John Hay

Merry said the topic will come up at the regular meet city meetings in March for discussion. He also noted that Salem’s trash pickup fee would likely be raised as well. 

He indicated no sewer rates would be affected. 

“We went to get a grant to pay for this and we were told we couldn’t get a grant because our rates were too low,” said Merry. “Our current average water bill is about $18.”

Salem’s hopeful water rate will still be on the low end compared to area cities.

Out of 9 other local communities, Salem’s is the lowest. 

  • Scottsburg is at $20.44 for 4,000 gallons of water.
  • Hanover is at $22.60
  • Bedford is at $24.14
  • Austin is at $26.75
  • Sellersburg is at $27.08
  • Loogootee is at $31.54
  • Jasper is at $34.91
  • Paoli is at $44.40
  • Mitchell is at $53.11 (on rates last raised in 2009)

Merry said Salem would fit in around $25.65; still on the low end. 

At the same time, Merry would also like to raise the trash rates, which have been $5.50 per month since Frank Newkirk Sr. was last in office in the early 90s. 

“I looked at other communities on the cost of trash pickup,” said Merry. “The mayor almost fell out in the floor when I told him what our rate was. Their rate was $11 plus $25 for additional items carted off.”

Lake John Hay currently provides treated water to nearly 2/3 of Washington County – shown in yellow. The City of Salem customers are shown in Red. The orange area is the Town of New Pekin.

With the $1 increase in trash and the water increase, the average Salem customer with a $20 water bill would see an extra $7.70 increase. 

On the extreme for residential customers, a $50 water bill would see an extra $18.50 per month. 

The increase would add an extra $579,000 for the water department on an annual basis.


Washington County is looking at years of neglect with the County Courthouse and is looking at extensive and expensive repairs. 

The City of Salem is finding itself in the same situation with its water treatment facilities. 

According to Dylan Lambermont of Wessler Engineering, the John Hay plant which was built in 1968, is operating with most of its original equipment – that’s 49 years. 

“There are parts of the system in serious need of repair,” said Lambermont. “The pumps are original equipment and they are not operating at optimal condition. In fact, it’s costing the city almost $28,000 a year in electricity because of their inefficient operation.” 

The new facility will also have a sustained maintenance plan to make sure this stays in good condition for years to come. It will also be able to handle up to 3 million gallons of water on a maxed out day and 2.37 million gallons on an average day. 

That would be a significant increase over today’s capabilities. 

The max capacity today is 2.57 million gallons a day. However, the plant is only able to pump about a fraction because of its failing condition.

With Lake Salinda out of the picture, all eyes are on Lake John Hay to supply the needed 2.02 million gallons of water a day that serves 17,202 people in Washington County. 

That’s 6,719 in Salem and the city sells water to  8,458 in the East Washington Rural Water Corporation service area and 2,025 in the Town of New Pekin. 

However, about 32 percent of the water treated at the current plant, is unsold.  In fact in 2014 and 2015, 237 million gallons went unaccounted for. 

Lambermont said the state’s guidelines for unaccounted for water is about 20-25 percent. 

The caveat here is that East Washington is planning a $1 million project to raise the level of the dam at Lake John Hay at no cost to the City of Salem – and effectively, as Mayor Troy Merry said, will dump Lake Salinda’s capacity into John Hay. 

However, once that is increased, the treatment plant needs to be replaced. 

The current plan is to begin the $11 million project in 2018 and be complete by 2020.