By James Cook,Times Editor
The Stanton City Council is still grappling with the idea of a water rate increase, as the Jan. 1 startup date for the water rate to be increased by the Beechfork Water Commission looms. The council met last Thursday and discussed the issue during their regular monthly meeting as nearly 20 residents were in attendance to watch the debate. Despite some exchanges and serious discussions, the issue was tabled again.
But in a special meeting Monday night with no crowd on hand, the council voted 4-2 to accept the first reading of the rate increase. Council members Charlotte Estes and Dixie Lockard voted against the increase. But the other four agreed that the increase would be necessary. The only alternative, according to the majority, was to lay off city workers to make up the budget deficit that would be created if the increase was not approved. The announcement of a special meeting was made public via notices posted on the courthouse doors last Friday.
Another meeting to approve the second reading could be held even as early as Wednesday, after the Times has gone to print. The regular meeting was a lot of discussion though leading up to the need for a special meeting.
“The water rate of 67 cents that has been passed by Beechfork will take place in 21 days,” Mayor Dale Allen told the council members and crowd at last week’s regular meeting. “Regardless if we take action or not, their increase will take place on Jan. 1. We’ll probably see it on our bill (what the city pays for water from Beechfork) in February.”
“Does their rate become effective after we approve it,” council member Danny McCormick asked. “Beechfork’s rate goes into effect regardless of action you take,” city attorney Scott Graham answered. “The system lost money last year and losing this year, they’ve had no increase in 10 or 11 years, the cost of chemicals has increased and it seems like it is something they are entitled to.”
Council member Linville Bellamy brought up that the city raised water rates this past summer in anticipation of a loan that ended up not being needed, yet from July to November the city water funds were at a $2,000 loss. Fellow council member Dustin Meadows added, “We’ve been in the red for quite a while and we’re still in the red.” Tommy Mays, another council member quickly added that the city was in the red $17,061 overall.
“The commissioner for Stanton is chosen by us, we need to all be on the same page,” Bellamy said amount another increase. “If we had known they were going to increase, we could have waited on ours, try to work with it. But raising water every six months ain’t going to work.”
In fact the Beechfork Water Commission, citing the higher cost of chemicals, repairs to pumps and having to pump more water as new customers are added on, voted to raise their rates in June. The city had already voted to raise their rates prior to the notification. Beechfork was only required to give a 60 day notice, but gave Clay City, Powell’s Valley Water and Stanton a six month notice of the increase.
“We have people who draw $300 or $400 a month, get $50 to $100 in food stamps, how are they going to survive,” Jerald Rogers spoke up from the crowd. “I paid a woman’s insurance on her house the other day because she couldn’t. You got to use some common sense. People can’t afford this.”
“Everyone here, you and the council, need to use common sense,” said another crowd member, Afton Patton, addressing his remark directly to Allen. “We have old people in this city that don’t draw enough to pay for their medicine or food or utilities, and now you want a water increase?”
Patton seemed to also single out Meadows as being the “instigator” in raising the water rate back in June. A brief exchange took place between the two men over the subject, but died down quickly.
Harold Barnett asked the mayor if the water would be raised again over the next few months. “I can’t answer that, I can’t say what will happen six months down the road,” Allen said. “Can you tell me what the price of gas will be six months from now?”
A resident and member of the zoning commission, James Roberts, asked the council if they had checked the Beechfork figures closely. The council reiterated that the numbers look right. “Powell’s Valley raised their rates based on the Beechfork numbers, and they have to go through the Public Service Commission,” Allen said. “That usually takes a while, but the PSC passed it quickly. They saw it was justified.”
The council then began to discuss how they could possibly avoid a rate increase. The only alternatives, after their discussion, centered around two possibilities. The city could run in the red, which they are required to balance out their budget; or they could layoff city employees. The city water department has dropped in the past few years from as many as nine employees to four, while the police department has dropped from 10 to six in the past five years or more.
“You can leave the rates the same, but Beechfork will raise theirs,” Graham told the council. Meanwhile the council tried to figure out if there was anywhere in the budget where the money could be found to stop a second increase.
“We don’t have it in our budget. We have to raise it what Beechfork raises it so we can zero out our budget,” Meadows said. “Unless we find the money somewhere else, but we don’t have it.” Charlotte Estes, who voiced her concern about raising the rates said, “I have family on fixed income and we help them all we can. But I can’t see raising this on them again.”
As the council continued to discuss the issue, several members of the crowd felt that the members were trying to talk Estes into changing her mind and vote for the increase. At least one unidentified couple decided to leave, stating that the council was not listening to the public anyway.
After some members of the crowd mentioned out loud that it appeared Estes was being pressured, Mays spoke up. “I can speak for myself. I don’t want to raise it, but we can’t run in the red,” he said. “Honestly, the only way I can see it is layoffs.” Bellamy jumped in quickly looking at the audience, “Does the public want layoffs, loss of services? Are you comfortable with that?” No one answered.
Meadows indicated that the city budgeted $400,000 to pay Beechfork for the water that is purchased. “We’ll spend $200,000 for the first six months of the fiscal year, but when they raise their rates it will be $270,000 for the second half of the year,” Meadows stated. “We either have to find somewhere to cut $70,000 or raise it (water rates).” Mays added, “That comes down to about two jobs now and then two later on, so we end up laying off four people.”
Ideas to cut cost from the crowd ranged from letting homeowners read their own meters and send it in, thus cutting the need for meter readers which cost the city about $1,800 per month; to reading the meters every three months. Another idea was a possible combination of making some cuts and raising the rate a little to make up the difference. The council decided to continue looking at the issue and tabled it again. The council will probably have to hold special meetings if they wish to pass an increase before Beechfork’s go into effect at the first of the year.
In other business:
• The council unanimously approved a resolution allowing the mayor to enter into agreements and sign necessary papers to assist with the Red River Wastewater Authority and the construction of the regional sewer plant;
• The put off the first reading of the flood plain ordinance until January, as some members wanted to see the maps before going any further;
• The council voted 5-1 to allow the mayor to enter negotiations and possibly solve an issue with Bobby Lowe. The issue as discussed in a closed session in early November. Mays was the lone dissenting vote;
• The council took no action on a sign ordinance, except to come up with amendments to change the size limits and number of days before an election a sign can be posted. The size would go to 32 square feet and the time would be 60 days, up from 45, for election signs if the amendments are passed at a later meeting;
• An ethics ordinance was placed on hold until the members could review it and will probably be taken back up in the January meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. on Jan. 14 in the Powell District Courtroom;
• At the special meeting the council approved he first readings of the flood plain ordinance and the ethics ordinance.