Council tables proposed sewer rate increase

Meeting starts with heated exchange from citizen who wanted police officers fired


FORT MADISON – City officials want to take another look at how proposed sewer rates will be increased on city residents.

At Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting, city officials were originally set to take action on an increasing the rates, but after a feisty unrelated start to the meeting, Mayor Brad Randolph moved the agenda item to a discussion-only item.

The meeting started with a little heat when Randolph addressed a previous meeting’s concern from Todd Oetken, a citizen who addressed the council two weeks ago asking for the termination of several police officers alleging they violated his rights by forcing him off government property, specifically Iowa State Prison property.

Randolph told Oetken, who was in attendance again Tuesday, that the issue was handled internally by city staff and because it was a personnel issue, wouldn’t be discussed in open session.

Oetken became heated, while two police officers stood in back of a full council chambers, and eventually stormed out hailing words at Randolph on the way out.

After he left, the council resumed the regular agenda, moving the sewer discussion to the end.

The city is proposing an increase put together by Driscoll, which would take an average consumer of 4,500 gallons of sewer water, the monthly bill would increase from $45.98 per month to $52.05 per month, an increase of $6.07 per month or 13.2%.

Driscoll said the increases are due to federally mandated sewer improvements. Bond payments on the city’s $15 million mandated waste water treatment plant start next year at about $1.3 million per year. Driscoll said the fund generates about $3 million per year, which won’t leave much left for maintenance and upkeep.

City Manager David Varley said a lot of things have come to ahead at once.

“It’s been kind of been a perfect storm of sorts,” Varley said. “We have an old sewer system we’ve got some pipes out there 50-100 years old and over the past 20-30 years the city has not kept up proper maintenance. The second one is the federal government telling us we have to upgrade our 40 year old waste water treatment plant. And the third is the federal government telling us we have to separate our sanitary sewer from our storm sewer.”

Varley said the difficult part is people in Washington DC or Des Moines sit and make these decision, but they don’t have to stand in front of residents who pay the bill.

“I would love to get some of them out here sometime because I think some of their regulations are a little overbearing. We’re the one’s who have to pass on bad news and live with this,” he said.

“Those combined together, if we don’t do the rate increase or a smaller one, we won’t be able to keep up with maintenance or finish our CSO projects on time.”

Rusty Andrews said he found the council packet where the rates were raised last time on the same issues and deadlines.

“Were we wrong? Did we not raise them enough last time?”

Driscoll said estimates were done in 2014 and the city has had overruns on those projects.

“I present the project to you guys and you guys vote on it,” Driscoll said. “When that happened we have had almost $5 million in overruns.”

He said the $5 million was taken out of reserves, the fund that paid for other sewer improvements.

Varley said extending sewer lines to High Point and Blackhawk Heights, as well as Silgan and Siemens which has also stretched the fund thin

City Councilman Bob Morawitz asked Public Works Director Larry Driscoll if there was a way to soften the blow to residents out of the gate.

“Is there anyway we can maybe reduce the initial increase and possibly bump the yearly increase after that?” Morawitz asked Driscoll. “It’s only six bucks a month, but I’m telling you this is going to hurt some people.”

The council agreed without a vote to have Driscoll look at other options for the increase including a lower rate increase now with higher annual contributions. The issue is scheduled to be put on the next council agenda for May 21.

In other action, the council voted to continue to look at options for the Idol Rashid building on the west side of the city.

The council was considering deeding the property to the Fort Madison Food Pantry, but Varley said Iowa law prohibits a city from donating property to another non-governmental agency. He said, however, counties may not have the same limitation and the city could look into giving the property to the county, who could then deed it to the Food Pantry.

Randolph said he preferred the city continue to go down that road since that it was what they agreed to do at last week’s meeting. Varley said he would continue to research the issue.

The council also:

• voted 5-0 to approve the purchase of a used bucket truck for the Traffic Safety Department

• voted 3-2 in favor of allowing the severing of property at 2208 48th Street. However, City Attorney Robert Johnson advised Randolph that the resolution would require a minimum of four votes one way or the other, so the issue technically failed. Councilmen Matt Mohrfeld and Chad Cangas were absent.

• voted 5-0 to move $226,230 from the water department back to the general fund to replace costs associated with a transfer station built on Bluff Road as an incentive to GreenOak Development.

• voted 5-0 to approve an amendment to the agreement between the city and the Iowa Department of Transportation recognizing an additional $400,000 in funding for the railroad depot project.

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