The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

October 19, 2012

LEVINE: City presents plenty of options

By Scott Levine
Associate Editor

CLINTON — Finance Director Jessica Kinser said it best Thursday when talking to the Clinton City Council about the delicate balancing game presented by the rising costs of sewer rates.

It’s all about finding out what’s required now and managing how much risk the future can take. That same balance shouldn’t only be applied to the city budget. Council members must balance the needs of the budget with keeping citizens in this city. And from what I saw during the Committee of the Whole work session Thursday, it could be a difficult sell.

I will commend Kinser, city staff, the mayor and City Council members, especially the ones who asked questions and tried understanding every aspect of Thursday’s work session. The city got into this mess by taking every suggestion as the only option and didn’t ask enough questions. Every angle should be navigated, and those City Council members who nitpicked each detail, did not only themselves a favor, but every citizen who entrusts them to run this city.

Kinser followed guidance and explored several ways to reduce the burden on taxpayers. After my column in September discussing the disparity of rates in other cities compared to Clinton, I received plenty of emails and phone calls decrying these recent rate hike discussions. I’m sure the City Council received many of the same correspondences, so I’m glad they listened to constituents’ concerns.

However, some of the suggestions that surfaced from the meeting are troublesome.

Funding these costs associated with the long-term control plan comes down to a few options. After all the dust clears, it appears that citizens will have the chance to reallocate the local option sales tax into fully funding these projects. That, of course, would require voters to give away property tax relief, adding $100 per year to a home assessed at $100,000.

I’ve only lived in Clinton for four years, but I don’t see that happening. I’m not for that option, especially since property taxes are already higher than most cities of similar size. It’s not right to take away a tax increase of sewer rate hikes, and replace it with another tax increase on my property. That doesn’t satisfy all the complaints that I’ve heard from people who are struggling to pay bills.

If that happens, it doesn’t guarantee we wouldn’t experience another large increase in July in our sewer rates, putting us in an even worse position than if we wouldn’t have reallocated the local option sales tax funds, and just accepted a big increase in January.

To me, the funding will come down to the changing attitudes about roads. Since I’m in the complimenting mode, I will once again commend the city in the work they’ve accomplished on city streets. The first thing that became crystal clear when my family moved to Clinton was the condition of the roads.

Clinton roads didn’t feature normal potholes. These were pieces of concrete that just happened to be labeled as roadways.

That problem doesn’t seem as pressing. The city’s road work has been well documented, and the reallocation of local option sales tax in 2009 has been a big factor in improving this city’s appearance.

But if the only options for keeping the city’s finances solvent come down to improving more roads and keeping my property taxes and sewer rates from escalating even further, I will choose a break in road construction. If voters reject the referendum to take away our property tax relief, the City Council will have to consider whether to borrow for road work, thus putting more of a burden on our property taxes through bonding, or cease the aggressive plans.

I know this was the major issue when most of these Council members ran for office in 2009, but times are changing. It will first be up to the voters, but if that plan falters, the City Council will have to step up and make sure rates don’t escalate for taxpayers. One way to ensure rates won’t increase is to enforce the rules, something that hasn’t been happening in Clinton.

It appears the city has always had the option to stop renters from simply stiffing the city on their sewer bills. Sure the city doesn’t have the power to shut off the water, but if renters don’t keep up with fees, the city has always had the ability to take away the ability to rent units that are not in compliance with the city.

That is one major oversight.

Miller Ridge Apartments ran up a bill of almost $400,000 in unpaid sewer bills. The city is owed millions of dollars in unpaid sewer payments. By enforcing this code, things could have turned out differently. Luckily this is going to start now, but it doesn’t excuse the fact the city utilized this caveat in denying the liquor license of the Scrub Pub in 2009, and no one suggested using this again until 2012.

Since everyone is now on the same page of going the extra mile in saving taxpayers from paying more fees, hopefully the uncertainty of the future will look a little brighter than the past few months.

Weekly picks

Week 6 record – 20-5; Overall – 101-24.

Picks in bold: Alabama at Tennessee; South Carolina at Florida; Kansas State at West Virginia; Purdue at Ohio State; LSU at Texas A&M; Florida State at Miami; Kansas at Oklahoma; Georgia at Kentucky; Baylor at Texas; Virginia Tech at Clemson; Middle Tennessee at Mississippi State; Michigan State at Michigan; Boston College at Georgia Tech; North Carolina State at Maryland; Iowa State at Oklahoma State; Auburn at Vanderbilt; Wake Forest at Virginia; Minnesota at Wisconsin; Texas Tech at TCU; Bowling Green at Massachusetts; BYU at Notre Dame; Pittsburgh at Buffalo; Indiana at Navy; Marshall at Southern Miss; Penn State at Iowa.

Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald.