MOUNT VERNON — Citing the need to educate the community and unease with automatic 10% increases starting in 2024, city council members voted to postpone raising wastewater fees.
Monday's unanimous vote postponed action until council's Jan. 25, 2021, meeting.
“I can't vote for something effective Jan. 1. That's days away,” Council member Julia Warga said. “I suspect many people don't know about it.”
Warga said she could support Councilman Mike Hiller's suggestion of making the increase effective March 1 providing the city begins a campaign telling residents about the increases.
“I want the public involved. Educate them,” agreed Councilwoman Janis Seavolt. “They have got to be able to know what's going on. It's their money. March is fine if they know what's going on.
“We all know the condition [the infrastructure] is in, but they don't. We need to educate them,” she added.
In addition to raising fees in years 2021-23, the legislation calls for an automatic 10% raise starting in 2024. Language also calls for council to review the user charge at least every three years. The current code calls for the public utilities director to report annually to council.
Council members questioned the need for an automatic increase if council is reviewing the wastewater status either annually or every three years.
“Unless there is a reasonable sunset on the 10-year compounding, I can't support this,” Councilman Tanner Salyers said.
“I don't like automatics,” agreed Hillier.
Salyers said that council's periodic review “puts pressure on all and makes sure we continue to address rates to make sure we are meeting EPA requirements to be self-sustaining.”
Public Utilities Director Mathias Orndorf supports the automatic increase.
“We have so much that we have to do to meet EPA requirements,” he said. “If [the rate increase] is only for three years, we have to go through the process all over again. It takes three, four, five years to get council to listen and say there's a need.”
Orndorf said that it would be easier to say the utility does not need the 10% increase and have council agree to discontinue the 10% hike or lower it to 5%.
“It's not good governance to sit on piles of money,” said Safety-service Director Richard Dzik. “If at some point we have a lot of money, we can lower rates. Unfortunately, we've gone the other direction … and failed to adequately fund our utilities.”
Dzik did say that postponing the effective date of the increase to March 1, 2021, would not be the end of the world.
Councilman John Francis, who agrees with deleting the automatic raise provision, took exception to Orndorf's suggestion that council fails to act.
“Three years ago it was brought to council and we acted on it. To assume or say council does not act, we do,” he said.
Council member Samantha Scoles said she understands the need for the rate hike but also said the issue seems to be moving too quickly.
“If we don't do this right with our community, they won't be there to support us. We need public buy-in for them to support us,” she said.
Noting that the timing for the rate hike is not ideal but the need is real, Council member Tammy Woods, who chairs the Utilities Committee, said the need over the years has not been communicated well.
“The situation is at the breaking point in the wastewater fund,” she said, calling on the administration to start a multi-tiered communication campaign with the community.
Council will hold a public meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 6:30 p.m. for the residents to ask questions and voice concerns. The meeting will likely be via Zoom. The city will post additional information as it becomes available.
In addition to postponing the wastewater rate increase, council took the following actions:
- Approved creating a second assistant utilities director position through the end of 2021.
- Approved appropriations, fund transfers, and bill payment, and compensation/benefits for the new clerk for Mount Vernon Municipal Court
- Adopted an interim budget of $6.445 million for the first two months of 2021. Council will hold a budget appropriations meeting at 9 am on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, via Zoom.
- Gave a second reading to legislation amending requirements for accessory structures
- Gave a second reading to legislation creating a patrol commander position within the Mount Vernon Police Department
- Gave a second reading to legislation amending city code for vehicle towing. Council will hold a committee meeting at its Jan. 11 meeting to discuss the change.
Planning & Zoning Committee
Council members discussed proposed changes to the city's accessory structure ordinance. Changes include removing the maximum size regulation of 35% or less of the lot's primary structure. It limits the number of accessory structures to two.
The new maximum size is 900 square feet except in situations where additional space is needed to comply with city regulations relating to boat, trailer, and RV storage. The 900 square feet accommodates a two-car garage plus storage space. Under the current 35% requirement, a house has to be at least 1,700 square feet in order to build a two-car garage.
Accessory structures still have to meet lot size and setback requirements.
In presenting the changes, Emily McKinley and Lacie Blankenhorn of the city's engineering department said residents are willing and able to move out of city limits if their needs are not met. Additionally, comparable cities' zoning codes allow for larger structures than Mount Vernon's.
Don Carr, a member of the Board of Zoning Appeals, was concerned about the changes' effect on property values and said they would destroy the look of neighborhoods by allowing large structures. He said the ordinance should also state accessory structures should limited to the back yard and be subordinate in size to the house.
Council will hold another committee meeting on the issue on Jan. 11, 2021.