Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

TOP STORY>> Cabot group seeks ways to pay for sewer plant

IN SHORT: Disbanded commission meets to discuss options that would lessen the impact of rate increases on senior citizens.

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

The group formerly known as the Cabot Public Utilities Commission met Monday to discuss raising sewer rates to pay for a much-needed sewer treatment plant.

The current plant is out of compliance with both state and federal standards and is not expected to pass a June inspection.
The city could be fined about $10,000 for its non-compliance.

The group, which now has no official standing in the city and whose members are referring to themselves somewhat jokingly as ďseven concerned citizens,Ē will recommend increases over the next three years that will more than double sewer rates for most customers but will only raise the rates 60 cents a month for customers who use 2,000 gallons or less.

The four former members who attended the meeting Monday are not in favor of a flat surcharge added to every bill to pay for a $16.5 million plant or any combination of a surcharge and rate increase, because both would significantly raise rates for senior citizens, a situation everyone involved with the issue is trying to avoid.

If the council approves of the rate increase as proposed by the former commission, rates for customers who use an average of 7,000 gallons a month would go up this year from $12.95 a month to $25.70 a month, a 98 percent increase. In 2006 that same bill would increase an additional 15 percent to $29.45. In 2007 it would go up another 18 percent to $34.70.

City Finance Director Dale Walker, working with bond attorney Jack Truemper with Stephens Inc., ran the numbers the former commission will recommend to the council when it meets in special session probably in early June.

Mayor Stubby Stum-baugh, who will call the meeting when he finds a convenient date, will likely appoint three of seven former commissioners to the new Water and Wastewater Com-mission that was created by ordinance last week to replace the Public Utilities Commission, which was essentially without power to run the water and sewer departments as it was expected to do.

Attending the Monday meeting were chairman J.M. Park, vice chairman Don Keesee, Bill Cypert and Bob Jackson.

Not attending were Doyne Plummer, David Hicks and Don Tripp. Of those three, Plummer has moved outside the city limits and is assumed ineligible to serve and Tripp has told the mayor he doesnít want to be appointed to the new commission.

The members of the former commission were appointed by the city council.

The new commission is of the type allowed by state law. When it takes full control in January, it will be autonomous, with power over the departmentís finances, equipment and personnel. Its members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.

Stumbaugh isnít saying which of the five who are eligible and willing to serve will be appointed, though it is common knowledge that the ordinance creating the new commission has a January startup date at the request of Park, who said he would not serve otherwise.

The former commission unanimously favored paying for the new plant by continuing the cityís one-cent sales tax that was passed in 1999 to pay for water improvements.

The mayor and several on the council are opposed to paying for utilities with a sales tax since utilities are supposed to be self supporting and the tax money is needed elsewhere.

But the tax is not a dead issue. Supporters for continuing the tax have the option of forcing the council by referendum to call for an election to let voters decide if they want to continue the tax or raise sewer rates.

ďIíve heard itís coming,Ē the city finance director said of the rumor that is circulating about a petition calling for an election.

ďI donít know whoís doing it, but Iíve heard itís coming. It should be an interesting (June council) meeting,Ē Walker added.