Rate discussion necessary

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The time is now if you, as a citizen of Cassville, want input on the future of your water and sewer rates. The city has introduced three different rate scenarios that would increase water and sewer rates at varying levels depending on water usage and what direction the city decides to take. A chart detailing these proposed rates appears on page 10 of today's Cassville Democrat.

The city's infrastructure task force met on the matter Tuesday morning and the need to upgrade the city's aging water system was presented. The community leaders who make up the task force are a very knowledgeable group, and we look forward to hearing their recommendations regarding water and sewer rates, and we hope city officials listen to their valuable input.

At this point, our major concern is that the city is moving too quickly on their rate plan without providing enough time to do a proper cost analysis study. The proposed rates were set by the Missouri Rural Water Association using numbers provided by City Hall, but in talking about the city's water system and costs associated with providing water to customers, there appeared to be some numbers, such as the cost to set up a basic water connection, that still needed to be solidified. Task force members will need to have as much information as possible at their disposal to make an informed recommendation. City Administrator Eugene Dilbeck said he hoped the council could take action on the rates within the next 30 days, and I do not believe that gives task force members, citizens and council members enough time to thoroughly digest the complicated issue of how to properly set Cassville's utility rates in a way that will promote growth but not overburden citizens and businesses with sudden and drastic rate increases in a recessionary time. In addition, if rates are going to increase, businesses and homeowners will need time to figure how to manage the rise in expenses, which in some cases could double or triple.

There is no argument that the city is having to subsidize its water system annually with $600,000 from general revenue. The first rate proposal would fix that imbalance and bring rates in line with costs. We would suggest the city start there, but phase in the rate increase over a specific time period rather than imposing it all at once. There also needs to be consideration of a tiered pricing scale for larger water users so that Cassville doesn't price business and industry out of its market. One of the entities that could be most affected by a large jump in water and sewer rates is the Cassville R-4 School District. If the city were to approve the rate scenario #3, it would mean the school district's water bill would increase by $60,000. That big of a jump, especially if the rate change was immediate rather than phased in over time, could force the district to cut staff or programs for students to absorb the increase.

Once the city gets its water system back in the black, the infrastructure task force could then reconvene and discuss the possibility of further rate increases over the long term to raise capital for making water system improvements. At this time, the city should consider pairing rate increases with a bond issue that requires a vote of the people. We also think the city should not set rates based on guidelines for federal grants, as proposed in the scenario #3, because these dollars have literally dried up and are not expected to be reinstated for three to five years.

We also think it would be prudent for the city to set a date for a public hearing on the proposed rates now rather than later to give citizens enough time to offer their feedback. And we encourage citizens to attend that meeting to make your voices heard. Many of you have talked to us about your concerns about the proposed rate increases, but very few individuals have offered their input to members of the city council.

If the city insists on acting on this proposal within 30 days, we are afraid it will appear as if citizen input is not important and the infrastructure task force members have wasted their time. Issues of this magnitude should never be forced through or rubber stamped by elected officials. Questions need to be asked and facts need to be gathered before the right decision can be made for the future of the City of Cassville, its citizens, its businesses, its schools and its industries.

Lisa Schlichtman and Lindsay Reed