Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

TOP STORY>> Sewage rates may double in Cabot

IN SHORT: Aldermen move toward raising sewer costs to build new treatment plant.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

The Cabot City Council took the first step toward raising sewer rates to pay for a new treatment plant Tuesday night, opting to double rates for the average user over the next three years while barely increasing rates for customers who use 2,000 gallons or less.

Technically, the council didn’t vote to raise rates but only on the option that will be advertised before a public hearing is called. After hearing from the public, the council could tweak the ordinance before setting the new rates.

But whether rates will actually go up could be up to city voters who could elect instead to pay for the sewer treatment plant by continuing an existing one-cent sales tax.

David Hicks, who lost his seat when the Public Utilities Commission was re-created about a month ago to become the Water and Wastewater Commission, addressed the council during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying he was part of a group of concerned citizens who would launch a petition drive to refer the question to voters.

Hicks, as well as most members of the former commission, favored paying for the $16 million sewer treatment plant with the sales tax, but he council, turned down that proposal saying the council promised when the tax was put to vote in 1999 that it would sunset when the bonds to pay for water improvements were paid off.

Furthermore, if the tax was to be used again later, it should be for something besides utilities which are supposed to be self-supporting, they said.

Alderman David Polantz was opposed to raising rates to pay for the sewer plant when the plans for the plant have not been drawn. The estimated cost is about $16 million, but Polantz said he was unwilling to spend tax money without knowing an exact cost.

“My fear is that if I tell an engineer I’ve got $16 million to spend on a plant, I’m going to end up with an $18 million plant,” Polantz said.

J.M. Park, chairman of the Water and Wastewater Commission who had earlier presented the proposal that was eventually selected told Polantz that with both state and federal environmental agencies closely monitoring the problems with the existing plant, the whole question was really out of their hands.

“You don’t have a choice,” he told Polantz. “The city doesn’t have a choice.”
Dennis Benson, with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, addressed the council saying the city has already had to pay about $25,000 in fines because of pollution problems at the plant and more are coming because the plant is still out of compliance.

The plant is simply too small, he said.

“You’ve got a one-ton load you’re trying to carry with a three-quarter ton pickup,” he said.

Compounding the problem is infiltration from broken sewer lines allowing rainwater to get into the system. Benson said that in the past three years, there have been about 100 overflows from manholes that left raw sewage on the ground.

“Even the EPA is looking at this city and wandering when they’ll get their act together and get something done,” he said.

Prompted by Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, Benson told the council that ADEQ would look favorably on the council raising sewer rates to pay for building a new plant, enough so that the fines might not be as large as they would be if the council did nothing. At press time, it was not known how Hicks announcement about the possible referendum would impact the city’s precarious position with ADEQ and the EPA or how long it could delay plans to build a new plant.

In other business, the council passed a resolution for partisan elections in the city. Alderman Patrick Hutton, a Republican, sponsored the resolution as he has twice before. But always before, he was alone in wanting to separate the Democrats from the Republicans at the council table.

Lonoke County Justice of the Peace Gina Burton, who is active in the Republican party, spoke for the resolution saying knowing which party a candidate belonged to made it easier for her to vote.

If she knew the party, she also knew where the candidate stood on such issues as abortion and gun control, she said.Polantz disagreed saying those issues did not play into the work required of a city council. However, partisan elections might produce more candidates which were sorely needed in Cabot.

The vote for partisan elections was 4-3. Hutton, Polantz, Eddie Cook and Jerry Stevens voted for the resolution.

Aldermen Odis Waymack, Tom Armstrong and James Glenn, voted against it. Alderman Bob Duke abstained saying he would not run for re-election. The mayor provided the fifth vote needed for the resolution to pass.The council discussed, but did not approve an annexation and rezoning of 50 acres near Greystone where developers intend to build condominium-style apartments and patio homes as well as a commercial complex.

Council members said they were not opposed to the development and Duke said as he understood, the plan was to build “the best of the best.”

However, some members of the council said they needed more time to look over the ordinance before they vote to pass it.

The matter will be taken up again in July.