Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

TOP STORY>> Sewer rates could double without vote

Leader staff writer

Cabot voters won’t get an opportunity to choose between using an existing one-cent sales tax and possibly doubling their sewer rates to pay for a $17 million sewer treatment plant.

The council split 4-4 over sending the sales-tax proposal to city voters Monday night and Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, who opposes using a sales tax for utilities, declined to break the tie.

Voting for sending the tax to voters were Aldermen Tom Armstrong, Bob Duke, Odis Waymack and James Glenn. Voting against were Aldermen David Polantz, Eddie Cook, Patrick Hutton and Jerry Stephens.

Without a sales tax, sewer rates will rise dramatically to pay for the treatment plant. J.M. Park. chairman of the Cabot Public Utilities Commission, which is being phased out, said after the meeting, “There will be a rate increase on the horizon, but I can’t predict the end result.”

“We are starting from ground zero,” he told the Leader. “We have some of the lowest rates in Arkansas.”

He said the commission will recommend three ways to generate revenue, perhaps a combination of a rate increase and a surtax, but it will try to lesses the impact on lower-income residents. The city council will decide what to charge.

Except for Stephens, who has said he opposes the tax because he fears a large tax would send shoppers elsewhere, the aldermen who voted against letting voters choose between the tax and higher sewer rates say the tax is the only large revenue source available for improvement projects in Cabot.

“It’s future planning for Cabot,” said Cook, who, like Stephens, is new to the council.

Cook serves on the budget committee. He says he knows the budget well and he is unwilling to tie up the only money likely to be available for street improvements.

“We can’t wait for a new Wal-Mart or Home Depot to open,” Cook said. “We haven’t overlaid the streets in years.”

Extending the sales tax to pay for a new plant was the first choice of the seven-member Cabot Public Utilities Commission, but that commission no longer exists. It was repealed Monday by a unanimous vote of the city council and will be replaced with a five-member Water and Wastewater Commission.

The public utilitiescommission was created in November 2-1 by city voters, but it lacked authority because of a council ordinance requiring a plan for assuming control before the city would relinquish control.

But even if the plan was in place, the commission would still answer to the council on money matters. The new, improved commission will be autonomous. It will control money, equipment and personnel in the water and sewer departments when it takes over running those departments Jan. 1.

But for now, the old commission doesn’t exist and the new one exists in name only. It has no commissioners.

The members of the Public Utilities Commission were appointed by the city council, but the mayor will appoint the members of the Water and Wastewater Commission.

He said Monday night that he would consider reappointing the old members to the new commission. But Tuesday morning, he said some wouldn’t make the cut.

“I didn’t sleep until about 2:30 thinking about who I will appoint,” Stumbaugh said. I think there are four (from the old commission.)”
Before abolishing the utilities commission, the council considered two ordinances creating a water and wastewater commission. They were identical except for the dates the commission would take over.

Waymack was the primary sponsor of the ordinance that was not passed that would have set a June takeover date. He told the council that without an early starting date, the commission would be powerless. After seeing that his ordinance had little support and at the request of the mayor, Waymack withdrew it.

Duke, the senior member of the council with almost 30 years of service, was the primary sponsor of the ordinance that passed. But speaking for the Jan. 1 effective date was J.M. Park, chairman of the utilities commission, and former president of the Bank of Cabot (Community Bank).

“I hesitate to say there’s a consensus,” Park told the council about the wishes of the commission. “I personally favor the Jan. 1 date. I just don’t feel like we can fly on our own.”

Park said the commission has been bogged down with the details of trying to build a new sewer plant to replace the one that is out of compliance with state and federal standards. Once a funding source is in place, possibly higher sewer rates, the commission will be able to “sort out the details” of taking over running water and sewer, he said.

But perhaps the deciding factor for many on the council was the possibility of losing Park who told the council, “I think I would request that I not be considered for appointment if we’re going to do it now.”

The driving force behind the commission’s concentration on the sewer treatment plant is an order from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality that the city bring the plant into compliance with standards by June 15.

No one involved with the plant, including the plant manager and Jim Towe, head of public works, believes it will be.

Towe has told the old commission that ADEQ will not say how much the fine for non-compliance will be, but it could be between $7,000 and $10,000.

A surprise visit on Monday from an inspector with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, added emphasis to the need for a new plant, Towe said.

Towe said visits from EPA inspectors are never scheduled by the city and when they show up, they look at the plant and the plant records. Inspector David Long didn’t like what he saw.

At the mayor’s request, he quoted Long’s assessment of the plant for the city council.

“He has seen pig farms that look better than our sewer treatment plant,” Towe said.