The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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February 22, 2013

LEVINE: Sewer issues pop up again

CLINTON — It’s difficult sometimes to judge what stories will attract readers.

In one instance, a story that makes a reporter proud because of its heartwarming story and its quality writing, may generate little to no reaction, while a small report done on deadline that didn’t seem like it had much appeal may blow up around town and on the Internet.

Every once in awhile, it’s a real guessing game on what will have “legs” when it appears in the newspaper.

Sewer billing, on the other hand, is never in question on whether it will become a hot topic at the coffee shop.

We learned this week that Clinton City Council members will once again mull over a proposal to raise sewer rates. As has been documented well in the Herald and in my columns, Clinton suffers from an abnormally high sewer rate compared to other cities in Iowa and in the nation. The city’s rates are the highest in Iowa, and although other cities are starting to feel the pain of having to comply with federal mandates on clean water, they have a long way to go before they hit Clinton’s level of sewer rates.

If a 9.5 percent proposed increase goes into effect in July (which is much lower than the 25 percent increase proposed in September), the city will charge $8.96 per 100 cubic feet, almost a dollar more than Boone, which charges $7.97 per 100 cubic feet. Boone currently owns the second highest sewer rates in the state, thanks to unfunded mandates from the federal government that Clinton is dealing with.

This is not a good list to be No. 1.

But this is only a proposal. After reading comments regarding this story from the Internet, I believe I need to reinterate that last point. This is only a PROPOSAL.

City Council members didn’t enact these rates and frankly, didn’t come up with the increases. Interim City Administer Jessica Kinser developed the proposed budget, and she is the one pitching the plan to the Council. Unlike many community members, this isn’t a dig toward city officials or Council members.

Kinser is tasked with making the city financially solvent, while Council members must weigh certain proposals and its effect on the city’s future. What happened in the past is history, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, other than learn from those mistakes. Pitching a fit about how the city screwed up trash service and sewer billing doesn’t help solve the problem of higher sewer rates.

So before grabbing a pitchfork and invading City Hall, brainstorm options to alleviate this problem.

The city generated $8.1 million during the past year in sewer bills, at a collection rate of 77 percent. In the future, Kinser is proposing a collection rate of almost 85 percent, which may be a little steep, but a good goal considering collection has been atrocious and embarrassing in the past. If collection rates go up, which according to Kinser have since January because of the city’s ability to use the state income offset program, more money will go into city coffers and may provide a little relief for rate payers.

Generally, though, when rates go up, payments become less frequent, making raising rates possibly a double-edged sword. Sure, more money may come in with each bill, but if more people aren’t paying, then we’re back to the same place we started with a few subsidizing a system for many.

Moving money out of the general fund would not be an option to add relief for sewer rates, Kinser said, because the city must stay in compliance with the state’s mandate of keeping a certain amount of funds in the sewer fund. Without sewer rate increases, expect big cuts in the sewer operating expense fund.

The city is doing some work through alternative means that could provide future relief. Lobbying lawmakers to give Iowa American Water the authority to shut off water to residents refusing to pay sewer rates is being done by city officials, and grants are constantly being investigated, which would cut the amount of funding needed by the city to produce projects in the long-term control plan.

As a current ratepayer for sewer services and as a person interested in developing a better Clinton for the future, it’s difficult for me to get behind sewer rate increases. I understand Kinser has a difficult job, especially considering the mess she inherited with sewer billing. With a 9.5 percent increase in sewer rates for 2013-14, the city would operate in a surplus in the sewer revenue fund for the first time in years.

But is that what’s best for the city?

Attracting new stores and homeowners is a competitive business. Cities have to offer something to potential Clintonians, and if we’re not able to provide low cost of living because our sewer, solid waste and property taxes are higher than average, then we must focus on providing better amenities than anyone else (as mentioned in my last two columns focusing on the pool and the marina).

With the Thomson, Ill., prison possibly opening soon, the city must take time to reflect on what’s necessary to keep this city moving in the right direction. In order to know how to move forward, there should be options available in how to address the constant problem of sewer increases. I know it’s budget time, but there is still plenty of time before July to make a decision on raising rates. City officials should offer this proposal, along with alternatives, so multiple angles can be discussed on what’s best to move forward.

Hopefully City Council members will take time and review all the possibilities when making a decision to raise sewer rates again. From what Kinser said in an interview Wednesday with me, this may be the only way to keep up with the federal government’s unfunded mandates. But like most things in life, it’s always good to have a few other options, no matter how bad they appear.

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

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