Staff had proposed 10% increases each year for the next three years starting July 1
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A move that would have increased sewer rates by 33% over the next four years was put on hold until the Fort Madison City Council can review the rate increases.
An amendment to the sewer rate charges was passed on Tuesday with a 7-0 vote, but the increases were temporarily removed in an amendment from Councilman Tom Schulz.
“This is the exact same ordinance but removing the 10% increase,” Schulz said. “Then we will consider the justification of the 10% increase at a later time.
Schulz said he felt like the increase was being requested of the council “with a gun to their heads” and proposed the amended ordinance.
“This keeps in force all the mandatory things we need to do to comply with regulations. It removes the rate increase as a temporary measure,” he said.
“I personally believe we need some time for staff to prepare a memo for us outlining the methodology they used to come up with this formula for this rate increase.”
He said the city should also get the information to the public more than two or three days in advance to give the public time to comment.
“We’re looking at a 30% increase in just over three years. It may very well be necessary. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s not. But I feel like we’re making a decision with a pistol to our head without having the data that we need to make that decision,” he said.
The city increased the rates 2% in July and Public Works Director Mark Bousselot said the city could increase the rates later, potentially 8% in September.
The amended ordinance adjusts treatment options the city has to implement according to Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources regulations by July 1.
Councilman Rusty Andrews said the city’s in the utility business whether they like it or not, and the sewer separation projects aren’t going away.
“I see everybody’s concern. It’s my concern too. I don’t like that bill anymore than anybody else, but the reason for this isn’t going away,” he said.
“We will never get away from treating sewage. We will never get away from separating our sewers. We can bump this to the next mayor, the next council, our kids, our grandkids. But it is not going away.”
He said the city can’t run a utility charity.
“We’re selling water and sewer and garbage. But electric and gas companies, do they give freebies out. If they’re doing it maybe we should look into it. But I’m not gonna be the charity utility. You have to pay your bill. I’ve had my water shut off, and I had to come and pay my bill.”
Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said it’s a big hill for the city to climb.
“(City Manager) David (Varley) brought this up at the last two years’ budget sessions and it didn’t fully get addressed. I don’t want us to think the looming backward trend in the sewer was unaddressed because it was brought up,” Mohrfeld said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker asked if there were any other ways to reduce the burden on the city’s lower income families, including diverting some funds from the water fund which is in healthier shape.
City Budget Director Peggy Steffensmeier said the water department also has future projects that those revenues would pay for.
“I’m just saying I want to be considerate of those things,” Bowker said.
The city is looking at four different sewer separation projects before 2029. Bousselot said current estimates have each one at about $8 million.
Bousselot said the proposed rate increases would not cover the costs of the remaining separation projects, but revenue raised with increases on the rates could only cover sewer-related projects.
Mohrfeld said he would entertain input to staff on the rate increases in the next two weeks and the topic will come back on the agenda in four weeks.