The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 28, 2012

LEVINE: City must find a different way to cover sewer costs

By Scott Levine
Associate Editor

CLINTON — It was a difficult week for Clinton taxpayers.

Citizens learned Monday they will foot the bill for another settlement, and on Wednesday, the city forwarded a sewer rate increase to the next Committee of the Whole meeting.

At this point, I shouldn’t be surprised. Oddly, though, I was, at least with the sewer hike. Residents are becoming numb to city officials settling with former employees and giving up thousands of dollars to avoid trial. But increasing an already over-priced sewer bill, which was raised again in July, caught me off guard.

City Council members approved a 20.7 percent increase earlier this year, giving the city of Clinton the dishonorable position of owning the highest sewer rates in the state of Iowa, eclipsing Boone’s rate of $7.97 per 100 cubic feet.

If a proposed 25 percent increase and 15 percent increase come to fruition in 2013, the average monthly bill would reach $94.08, almost double the $54.32 the same customers paid in July 2011, and that was high compared to the rest of the state.  

According to a rate study conducted in 2011, the state median average for water AND sewer bills is a little more than $40 per month. By 2015, that rate study projects the median average monthly bill for water and sewer would rise to $60.30, a bit higher than residents in Clinton were paying for only sewer services in 2011.

But wait. Clinton is the anomaly in the entire state and nation when it comes to problems. Except that’s not true, either, despite the constant dire predictions coming from City Hall.

The city of Burlington is going through budget woes, shifting money into different budgets, including paying attorney fees out of the sewer fund. To help alleviate some of their budget problems, City Council members made the difficult decision to raise rates to $3.28 per 1,000 gallons of water, which amounts to about $2.45 per 100 cubic feet.

Excuse me for being a little underwhelmed by their increases.

In Fort Dodge, rates are raising from $2.80 per 1,000 gallons of water to $3.15 per 1,000 gallons in 2016. Their average monthly bill for 2012 was $22.87.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, Burlington is on the Mississippi River and has a population of 25,564, while Fort Dodge has 24,981 citizens. Clinton boasts a 26,830 population.

But it’s not just similarly sized cities dealing with sewer rate increases. Knoxville faced tough regulations from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and raised its rates to $5.82 per 1,000 gallons, equivalent to $4.35 per 100 cubic feet, almost half of Clinton’s current rate of $8.18 per 100 cubic feet.

Elkador also took on sewer improvements, moving its monthly fee from $34 per month to $43.50 per month.

And what about the constant argument regarding the city’s difficulty of delinquent bills? Davenport, Bettendorf and LeClaire are the only other Iowa cities that do not own their water supplied to customers, providing a setback to cities trying to collect sewer fees.

Fortunately for those cities, the problem must not be too bad, considering Bettendorf has the second lowest sewer rates in the state for cities with populations greater than 10,000. Davenport was below the median average for cities with populations greater than 10,000, just below Ames, which is proposing sewer increases on their average $24 monthly bills.

Who’s to blame for Clinton’s problems? I don’t know, but I’m not going to participate in the pastime that the current council has grasped, by blaming everyone else for their problems. The council is pointing fingers at a bad ordinance put in place four years ago during the original increases that delayed payments to the city.

During the blame game, though, it’s never mentioned that six of the eight (including the mayor) City Council members were elected on or before 2009, and if they had acted during their tenure to change that ordinance, this mess could have been avoided.

It’s also not mentioned how during budget time, these extra costs are not accounted for.

Each year, city officials map out a budget, and for the past two years, panic has set in during the fall regarding unexpected expenses.

Either revenue is not being correctly projected or someone isn’t doing their job.

City Council members are elected to keep the city in working order and make Clinton an attractive place to live. With property taxes higher than cities with comparable populations, like Mason City, Marshalltown and Burlington, and service charges going through the roof, it’s impossible to compete with other cities.

Not only do fixed-income residents suffer from escalating charges and taxes, but young families, who can contribute to the growth of cities with new ideas, good-paying jobs and new spirit, are being forced to work in Clinton, but live outside the city limits to avoid being a part of the constant practice of passing on huge increases to citizens willing to pay for services.

It’s time for a new course. Find a different way to fund a bill for a road construction project that was somehow not budgeted for correctly during the multiple budget workshops.

And if the City Council won’t vote “no” to this increase, Mayor Mark Vulich should stand up for the citizens who elected him, and veto anymore increases.

We’ve heard these doomsday predictions before about how the city wouldn’t function without applying another tax hike. I’ve yet to see the city disappear from heeding the advice of outside consultants.

However, if this increase goes through, the only thing the city will see disappear is its people.

Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at