Cassville residents voice concerns at public hearing

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Cassville City Hall Council Chambers could not accommodate the number of citizens who turned out for Thursday night's public hearing on proposed water and sewer rate hikes.

Over 150 people filled seats, stood and crowded the foyer outside the meeting room for the hearing, which was designed to give residents an opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions about the proposed rate increases.

Mayor Tracy Holle began the hearing by informing attendees of the rules of order that were to be used to ensure residents had an opportunity to address the council. Individuals interested in speaking were required to complete a form before the meeting and allowed two minutes to speak.

At 12 minutes into the public hearing, Holle called Kathy Casey to the podium. Casey was the first citizen to address the council.

"I believe there is a legitimate reason that a rate increase needs to be made, but the only solution we have heard is a drastic increase," said Casey. "We have heard of nothing that has been done to reduce costs and expenses.

"You have a salary of $100,000 going into one household," said Casey. "That could be cut. There have been other expenses that perhaps could be considered a luxury if there is a crisis."

Casey pointed to funding that was used to contract for the design of a new city logo, redesign the city's website and remodel the council chambers. She also noted that the city has spent $14,000 for the DREAM Initiative.

"There are things that could possibly be cut altogether to make the rate increase smaller," said Casey. "The first option (proposed by the Missouri Rural Water Association) would be a good place to start."

Susan Hall Doty pointed out that if the rates are increased substantially, she will have less money to spend at local businesses.

"You have said that the increase is needed due to the decline in tax revenues," said Doty. "My discretionary income will be reduced considerably by this."

As a result, Doty said that she would spend less money at local restaurants and businesses, which in turn would cause tax revenues to decrease further.

"It's a vicious circle," said Doty. "The size of this rate increase is frightening."

Reagan Stringer echoed Doty's concerns.

"My deal is that everybody's water bills are going to go up," said Stringer. "The elderly couple who receives a $100 water bill cannot afford to spend money in my store or get their hair done at my friend's shop.

"This is going to affect everybody in town," said Stringer. "They are not going to have extra money to spend at our businesses."

Linda Holmberg asked why the water tower located near the Walmart Supercenter needed repairs. She also asked why the city did not ask the companies that constructed the tower to make the repairs.

"You should go back to where the problem started," said Holmberg. "Don't put this on the shoulder of the taxpayers. They didn't do anything wrong. They shouldn't be punished."

Penny Holmberg said that she believed some local residents could lose their homes if the rates are drastically increased.

"Senior citizens can't afford this raise," said Penny Holmberg. "We don't get a raise, and yet everything is going up."

Deborah Henderson presented the council with a jar of water that came from the tap in her home on Townsend Street. She said that her family is forced to purchase bottled water due to the smell and taste of the water.

"I am on a fixed income, because I am disabled," said Henderson. "I flat out can't afford it. We already spend additional money on water."

Cindy Butler asked members of the audience if they would be choosing between paying their utility bills and purchasing medicine or food. Several people raised their hands. She also asked if any businesses would close due to the increase, and one individual indicated that their business would likely come to an end.

"I live on $883 per month," said Butler. "The health will go down hill for people who cannot afford to buy their medication or eat. Why can't we raise the rate slowly instead of doing it all at one time when it knocks us all to our knees."

Judy Harvey pointed out that she is already paying an increased utility bill due to the sewer expansion that was completed in Sherwood Forest.

"The city was leaking all over the place (when that project was completed) four years ago," said Harvey. "Now we are being hit with this. Why was this not done five or 10 years ago if we had the problem then?"

Gary Miller asked why all of the repairs and improvements were being completed at once.

"I'm with everybody else," said Miller. "I know that we need a hike, but if you hike it that much, it is going to hurt a lot of us. I'll be able to pay it, but it is going to hurt. You have to have common sense. If you do this all at once, the City of Cassville might not be here anymore."

Bill Andrews asked why a city the size of Cassville is operating five water towers. Eugene Dilbeck, city administrator, later said that the towers were needed to maintain adequate water pressure.

"You have entered into a $500,000 (water tower) maintenance agreement," said Andrews. "Do you really need to spend that kind of money?"

John Starchman, infrastructure task force member, also addressed the council during the hearing. The task force formulated the proposed water and sewer rates currently under review by the council.

"I saw first hand the figures and the issues that were presented, and I think this is far too much," said Starchman. "We need to do this in smaller increments."

Starchman also asked how the proposed water and sewer rate increase will impact the general fund budget and commented on the late fee policy recently approved by the council.

"If an individual is not able to pay on time, adding a fee is not going to make it better," said Starchman.

The council was also addressed by Stan Kelley, who represented the Cassville Industrial Development Corporation.

"We recognize and acknowledge the need based on the information and regulations that the city has been confronted with," said Kelley. "We have concerns regarding the hikes that have been proposed.

"We have been successful in the past bringing industry to our area, and we are thankful for it," said Kelley. "We attribute that to our great workforce and our low cost of living."

Kelley said the IDC supports the information Lynette Dilbeck, city economic development director, presented at a council meeting in October.

"We need to keep the city competitive," said Kelley. "We feel a phase-in approach is needed to make industries and businesses better able to sustain the usage prices.

"Increasing the rates all of the sudden could be detrimental to our economy and business community as a whole," said Kelley. "Consider the time frame to solve this. We want to be a strong community, and we believe raising the rates at a gradual pace is the right thing to do."

Christy Hermansen asked the council to consider taking three steps before drastically increasing the water and sewer rates.

"Enhance public understanding about the need," said Hermansen. "I have received a lot of information over the last two weeks, but prior to that I was unaware of the needs the city is facing."

Hermansen said citizens also needed to be educated on conservation. It wasn't until she began investigating her own usage that she realized that she had a small water leak that was wasting water and money.

Hermansen asked the council to offer more information on why a rate is needed at this time and why the rate needs to be increased to a certain level. She also suggested implementing a plan to gradually increase the rates a certain percentage each year until they reach the optimal level.

"If people knew their bill would increase 10 percent the next year, they could budget accordingly," said Hermansen. "Let me be clear. I am not against a rate increase, but the council and Mr. Dilbeck need to be more clear about the reason an increase is needed, how the city will benefit from an increase and how the city's revenues will benefit as well."

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