The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

April 26, 2013

LEVINE: City faces competitive disadvantage with higher sewer rates

By Scott Levine
Herald Associate Editor

---- — When Clinton City Council members denied a sewer rate increase April 9, I thought about writing a column praising their efforts to look out for residents.

But I waited. Not because I didn’t want to offer good news in my column, but because I didn’t believe the story had ended.

Sure enough, the sky fell Tuesday and we’re back to more rate increases. But at least it’s only 78 cents — well, at least for those of us that only use one unit on a monthly bill. I, for one, am using a much higher volume for a household of two adults and one child.

Luckily for my family, we can afford a higher bill. We’re blessed with not having to live paycheck-to-paycheck, giving us the opportunity to afford these increases, without having to dip into savings or choosing not to pay another bill to afford flushing our toilet.

Others aren’t so lucky. The hardest hit are the lower-income residents and compared to the state of Iowa, Clinton’s demographics feature a larger proportion of fixed-income citizens. According to U.S. Census figures from 2007 to 2011, 16 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in Clinton, compared to 11.9 percent in the state of Iowa.

The median household income is $41,699 in Clinton, a sharp decline from the state’s median household income of $50,451.

What does this have to do with sewer rates? Collections have been an ongoing problem for the city, and lately, a few programs are being utilized to rectify collections. But that is still not making up for what’s being lost through residents not paying. Generally, though, lower-income residents cannot afford increases, especially considering Clinton owns the dubious honor of having the highest rates in the state, putting the burden on middle- and higher-income residents.

The higher the rates, the less bills will be paid. It’s a vicious cycle, and Clinton residents have been stuck in this ongoing saga for years.

The city finance department has a job to do. That department is focusing on making the city solvent, which is finally happening after years of mismanagement.

City Council members have that responsibility, too. But, they must balance that against the will of the citizens and, in turn, become negotiators. So when they denied the increase a few weeks ago, it should have set up a negotiation between the finance department and the City Council.

Bargaining for a lower rate increase while investigating other options, like using more of the local option sales tax to offset some of the effect on taxpayers, would have been a better result than just giving in and reversing their earlier decision because some future projects may be delayed.

How much would a reallocation of money used for future streets repairs be worth to residents?

Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight to increases. I conceded that long ago.

But the problem with the escalating costs of living in Clinton and reduced benefits is that it doesn’t help attract residents.

The city will bend over backwards to give away future tax revenues from incoming industry. But when it comes to investigating every option available to help future and current residents, there’s barely a mention of the possible solutions other than the typical “don’t blame me, I don’t want to do this, I have to,” argument.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for providing tax incentives to attract businesses. We need new industry.

But we also need citizens. Population decreases have been well documented and the city of Clinton is far off the pace set by other towns in Iowa. From 2000 to 2012, Clinton lost almost 1,000 residents.

In that same time period, the state of Iowa has seen a .6 percent increase in residents. Attracting people to live here is much like attracting businesses. There has to be something to offer.

With a new baby joining my family soon, moving into a bigger house is a likely next move. I would assume the city would want to attract young families who can contribute to the local tax base. But what’s keeping us in town or contributing to the sewer fund? Wouldn’t it be easier to live inside the city of Clinton and not have city sewer or deal with ever-increasing Iowa American Water rates, which is doable in certain areas of town? Or, why not work in Clinton and live somewhere else with lower rates and less headaches?

That’s one of the constant issues facing the city of Clinton. How do you convince young families or business owners to live inside the city?

Raising rates without having a plan to increase services isn’t the way.

My family likes Clinton. There’s promise in this town and the future looks bright for more businesses locating in town. Not everyone will be happy with the decisions made by City Council members. That’s the nature of the business.

But a strong commitment of doing what’s best for residents is necessary. And from what I’ve seen lately, from trying to eliminate large-item pick-up because it’s a hassle to raising rates, it doesn’t appear that’s being done for the majority of residents.

Hopefully in the future, with workshops focusing on how to pay for projects before actually doing them, city officials can address those concerns and work toward making Clinton the best city it can be.

Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at scottlevine@clintonherald.com.