Bowker accuses city officials of misinformation on project extensions
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A bump in the city’s sewer rates was met with conflicting opinions again at Tuesday’s Fort Madison City Council meeting.
The city is looking at possibly bumping sewer rates to help take a little of the sting out of some unfunded mandates out of the Environmental Protection Agency in conjunction with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The city has already done some work, but are looking at close to $40 million to separate city sanitary sewer and storm sewer lines.
A move that would have increased sewer rates by 33% over the next four years was put on hold in May until the Fort Madison City Council can review the rate increases.
A 2008 report from the Iowa DNR indicated nine communities that at that time had outdated combined sanitary and storm sewer systems.
In those systems, during heavy rains, the sewer lines can back up into a receiving stream before getting to the waste water treatment plant, causing both storm water and sanitary sewer flows to back up into the stream. This is called a Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO.
Federal grants for sanitary sewer work ceased in the 80s and now there are matching grants and low interest loans, some through the DNR’s revolving loan fund, but those options are competitive.
The EPA’s Region VII took the lead on the sewer system in Fort Madison even before the 2008 report. The other communities were Burlington, Keokuk, Muscatine, Ottumwa, Clinton, Wapello, and Spencer.
Fort Madison currently has four CSO projects left at an estimated cost of about $8 million each.
City Manager David Varley said the city has already spent about $26 million on water and sewer projects starting with the $19 million waste water treatment plant upgrade. Other projects were running sewer to the Silgan plant *($450,000), the High Point Sewer project ($2.2 million), and the southwest sewer project ($4.2 million).
He said the first CSO planned is on 10th Street, which he ballparked at $6 million to $8 million, and multiplied that by four, counting for inflation is a lot of money.
“You’re talking some numbers that are staggering. Just literally staggering. It’s hard to comprehend how much debt that would require to do all that,” Varley said.
He said there was some talk with the city’s attorneys on the matter, Ahlers & Cooney P.C. out of Des Moines, about requesting some extensions from the EPA.
“The good news when they first came out with the act they were giving out quite a few grants and there was money attached to projects like that,” he said.
Varley said they don’t have the data yet to determine what the rate would need to be to pay for the projects.
“But we know that 10% over three years will be less than what we need, but we’re trying to slowly move it up. The last time we increased it, I think it went up to about $52/month and that was a fairly substantial increase.”
The city took two hikes in 2019 and then in 2021 the city adopted a policy of a 2% increase per year ongoing, but Varley said that won’t build up enough fund balance to borrow against.
Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker said she doesn’t want to engage in “fearmongering” over the costs. She said it was her understanding that the first project may cost between $6 million and $8 million but subsequent projects won’t cost as much because there isn’t as much depth.
“So let’s be realistic on that,” she said.
Bowker also said she’d been told that the city already had applications in for extensions from the EPA.
“I’ve asked for the last year now at several meetings, don’t we already have a request in to the EPA to extend our deadline?,” she asked.
“On numerous occasions I’ve been told yes. So now we’re going to say we need to have an agreement to request that. I’m mistaking that?”
Varley said requests were put in to the attorneys to look at it, but he never followed through with a high priority request. He said Ahlers & Cooney has had success doing that and they had a conversation with them.
“Well, I am disappointed because I feel like I’ve been misled in those conversations. I want to make sure we’re clear in what we’re doing and the communication to this council. Until we have the data, why subject our residents to an increase in rates.”
Councilman Rusty Andrews said it’s a guarantee the city will have to pay for the projects.
“Even the rate increase doesn’t cover the first project. All we’re trying to do is get some money to get a down payment on the project,” he said.
Varley said the fund currently has a couple hundred thousands.
Councilman Tom Schulz said he’s heard about the city receiving extensions in the past.
“I’ve sat in several of these meetings and we talked on numerous occasions about this and I’ve heard us say we’ve received extensions in the past and we’re working toward receiving additional extensions. I have never heard us say we’ve already applied for these extensions,” he said.
“When I originally wanted to move this price increase back, it wasn’t because I believe the price increase wasn’t going to be necessary. It was not that I didn’t believe that we had expenses that were going to be mandated upon us by outside agencies. But we needed to do a better job of explaining to the rate base, to our taxpayers, why we have to charge additional money,” Schulz said.
City Manager David Varley said the city has never received an EPA extension on the work.
Andrews said the city has done some things that has bought the city some time including building a testing separation location across from 6th Street in Riverview Park.
“That was a testing facility to see if that would work,” Andrews said.
Public Works Director Mark Bousselot said the last time the city discussed the rate increases in May it was for a 10% increase for the next three years and 3% per year after that in hopes of getting the city some seed money for the projects.
Varley suggested the city do a rate study, but that would require spending money on the study. Schulz said the city has staff that can do the comparative study.
Bowker said the city has done those types of studies in the past and said it may be the best way to get a more accurate look at what the rate increase should be.
“I just want full disclosure. I don’t want to say we’re going raise this amount of money every month on our residents, which I have already expressed concerns about and was dismissed. You and I can afford the extra $2.10 but that’s a carton of milk for somebody else,” she said.
“I’ve expressed those concerns and I just wanna know we have the data.”
Schulz asked Bowker, who’s running for the District 100 State Representative seat in the fall, if she was kicking the issue down the road so she didn’t have to vote on it before the election.
Bowker took offense to the comment.
“Give me a break Tom, that is uncalled for and unprofessional.”
Mayor Matt Mohrfeld rapped the meeting back to order and suggested an in-house staff investigation into comparable sewer rates for other Iowa river towns. No action was taken on the issue as it was presented for discussion only.
In a related issue, the council also approved an increase in the Great River Regional Waste Authority integrated waste fee. GRRWA requested a rate increase of close to 40% earlier this year to offset costs of new cell construction to increase landfill capacity.
The new rate reflects a monthly increase of the fee to the city from $4,403 to $11,360. That fee will be passed on to users and will increase the annual residential customer’s cost by $18 and non-residential customers $40.20.
In other action, the council:
• approved a resolution for a one year contract between the city and Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission for SIEBUS transportation services. The City also approved a contract for Grant Administration Services with SEIRPC for administration of the 10th to 18th Streets Hwy. 61 reconstruction project.