Bond issue goes to voters
Resident questions city’s fiscal responsibility
Cassville voters will have a decision to make on April 4 — whether to approve an $11 million bond request from the city of Cassville — and one resident in the city said he is against the measure because of distrust in the city’s spending practices.
The city is asking for up to $11 million in bonding capacity as a funding mechanism for two long-term projects aimed at repairing and replacing the city’s aging and problem-riddled water and sewer lines. The initial project is a five-year, $5.4 million plan to fix the ailing sewer system, aiming to reduce the total amount of water being processed by the city’s wastewater treatment plant. After the sewer project, a $4.89 million proposal would replace more than 21 miles of water pipes.
The utilities issues forcing the project’s completion began in 2011, when previous administration and city council members signed a voluntary compliance agreement with the Department of Natural Resources aimed at eliminating the use of Cassville’s lagoon and prevent untreated water from overflowing into Flat Creek.
Six years later, and after receiving an extension on the agreement, the city bond issue aims to get the city into compliance. However, resident Gail Purves said he is against the issue, as he said the city has not been holding up its fiscal promises in recent years.
“I’m not opposed to the repairs, but when it comes to the integrity of when council and the mayor on how to spend the money, unless we have someone watching over their shoulder, we don’t know if they will spend it like they say the will,” he said. “They may spend 90 percent of the money [on the proposed projects] and 10 percent elsewhere.”
Purves said there are many reasons he’s come to his position, one of which includes previous rate hikes.
“In 2011, they increased the water rate by 50 percent to bring their funds from $850,000 per year to $1.2 million per year, and they said that would free up money in general revenue to fix the system,” he said. “Instead, they sat by while costs doubled.”
Steve Walensky, city administrator, said at the time of the 2011 increase, Eugene Dilbeck was the city administrator, and it was the first rate hike in 10 years for water, and the first hike in seven years for sewer.
“We were subsidizing with general revenue for the water and sewer department, so the intent was to get rates to cover operating costs,” Walensky said.
Walensky said the city then lost its permit to use an outflow valve flowing from the city’s lagoon into Flat Creek, which when activated in heavy storm situations, released untreated water into the creek.
“DNR said no more using that bypass, and our initial thought was that we needed to fix the lines coming into the plant,” Walensky said. “But, when we had the drought in 2012, we didn’t have enough water coming in to run the plant, so we learned the collection system was the problem.
“We got a grant and redid the study and realized what we were going to do wouldn’t fix the problem, but would make the plant overflow faster. There is a saturation zone, the lowest part of the city, and the private zone, where storm water was getting into the sewer system. That’s why we completed the water study in 2014 and held off on any major improvements because we wanted to do it all at once through a revenue bond.”
Purves said another reason is that transportation tax funds were suppose to be used for the streets, and he said the city moved employees to use it for salaries, and new city vehicles were bought.
City Clerk Jennifer Evans said the city took had an unaudited amount of $347,429.02 in the transportation fund in 2016. The figure includes money from the transportation tax, as well as County Aid Road Trust funds, motor vehicle taxes, street cut fees and other miscellaneous fees, all of which may be only be used for specific transportation needs as specified by state statute.
Evans said since the transportation tax’s collection began, the city has used the combined special revenue fund to by $45,385.96 in equipment, including a dump truck used for street improvements, a crack and seal kettle trailer, a Tiger Tail mower for maintaining the city’s rights of way, and spreaders for winter weather preparedness.
“The last few years before the transportation tax, we were supplementing through the general fund and our equipment was neglected, and we needed that equipment to be able to function,” Evans said. “It’s important for the mayor and council to show they are doing all they can for the streets, and we have to have our own equipment because it’s not cost-effective to contract everything out.
“This year, we have as dump truck that’s broken down and unusable, but the council felt that money would be better used elsewhere, so they put it to more street improvements.
In 2016, Cassville chipped and sealed or resurfaced County Farm Road, 13th Street First and Gravel, and did some asphalt patching, all at a cost of $230,292.99. This year, $206,167 is slated for street improvements on Abbey, Mystic, Nottingham, Lake Road and Gravel streets.
Purves said another issue at hand is the city’s billing practices, which he believes are unfair to residents.
“The city used to have a policy where if the pipes freeze or age, and the homeowner would repair them, the city would give a credit for lost water on your bill,” he said. Now, [City Administrator Steve] Walensky has said if the water goes through your meter, you have to pay for it. That’s not right because some families struggle, and they may get a giant bill for a water leak they didn’t know about.
“The city has increased these rates around 2-1/2 percent each year since [the 50 percent hike in 2011]. This should put the total taken in each year at around $1,357,500, which calculates out to a little over $26,000 a week. [I had a tenant where a] leak occurred, [and that resident] probably brings home around $400 a week. Even after the excess sewer charges were subtracted from the bill, there was an estimated additional cost of $160 for the water leakage. This calculates out to 37 percent of the tenant’s weekly paycheck. But, this same $160 amount, when compared to the income of the water and sewer department, calculates out to around six-tenths of 1 percent of the weekly income of this department. The city has become too greedy, and 30 percent of what is pumped out of the wells is lost on the city’s part, so taxpayers are having to pay for both sides of it.”
Walensky said does offer a leak credit, but only if the water lost does not enter the sewer system and is processed by the plant.
“In that case, we average the last three months of bills and that’s what the customer pays,” he said. “I had a leak like that at my resort and my water company did not offer me any credits. At the end of the day, we don’t charge based on income, and our goal is to provide quality water at the lowest cost we can, and everyone is treated the same.”
Purves said he does believe the route the city is taking to fix the water and sewer systems is the correct one, but there should be a closer eye on the city’s spending practices.
“Someone needs to stand over their shoulder and make sure the money is used directly for the sewer and water lines,” he said. “There has been complete incompetence on the part of the council for the last 30 years because they knew about this. They did not use the last big increase as promised, so I don’t trust them and want to make sure there are no expenditures that do not qualify.”
Walensky said there is already a person for that, the city’s auditor.
“We have an independent auditor review our entire budget and set of books,” he said. “The auditor will be here Thursday starting to go over 2016. To say we misuse funds is wrong when we have had an independent auditor and, for the past six years I have been year, successfully passed every audit. If anyone wants to review our plans and look at that stuff, they certainly can.”
Walensky said there are also safeguards for purchases, such as in his city administrator capacity, he may only approve expenditures below $3,500, and anything above that figure must be taken before the council. The public works director is allowed to approve even less, no expenditure more than $500.
“There are several checks and balances beyond the city staff,” Walensky said.
Bill Shiveley, Cassville mayor, said the bond issue is essential for the city’s future, as not passing it would delay the required project further, and the city may face fines if it falls out of compliance.
“The sewer project will fix a lot of our inflow and infiltration (I and I) problems, and that’s the part that will get us DNR-compliant,” Shiveley said. “It will still be one or two years before we break ground on the sewer project. If we don’t pass [the bond issue], we will still have to fix the I and I problem, and we could be fined as much as $10,000 per day. I don’t think it would be that much, but we would be fined. The question is, do we want to pay for this now, or do we want to wait and pay more to do it later?”
Engineering firm Olsson and Associates proposed improvements that include pipe and joint pressure testing and grouting, lateral connection pressure testing and grouting, manhole rehabilitation and pipe machine testing, where joints could be sealed. Work would include some open-cut projects, cleaning and CCTV use inside the pipes, butting protruding tape and gaskets, curing pipes and private inflow and infiltration abatement. Projected costs include:
* $2.7 million on open-cut and trenchless repairs (trenchless repairs include grouting and other approaches that avoid digging to any pipes)
* $150,000 on cleaning and CCTV use
* $1.5 million on private inflow and infiltration abatement
* $1.05 million on non-construction and contingency costs
The trenchless repairs, which garner most of the $2.7 million projection, would have a 50-year design life. Work would also result in some savings at the treatment plant, as it would be pumping less, therefore, using less electricity.
The city has 93,000 linear feet of pipes that need attention, which accounts for about 52 percent of its 180,000-linear-foot total. There are 18 open-cut areas, which would include the excavation of certain areas and total replacement of pipes. Most of these areas are in downtown Cassville.
That water line project, proposed after a study by Schultz Surveying and Engineering of Branson, aims to replace half of the city’s 43 miles of water pipes to cut the water loss figures.