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  • Last modified 155 days ago (Dec. 16, 2021)

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A liquid lump of coal in our stocking

The margin — provided no one is arrested — won’t be as extreme as the one that a highly efficient burglar set himself up for in eight minutes of grabbing drugs over the weekend from Hillsboro Hometown Pharmacy.

But make no mistake about it: The city of Marion will be making an almost as steep 36.7% profit off its water-using taxpayers when rates adopted Monday night take effect next month.

The new rates will add at average of $216 a year to what already are the highest water rates in Marion County. Believe it or not, that’s equivalent to a 20.9-mill increase — yes, 20.9 mills — in property taxes on an average home valued at $90,000.

The profit will pay off $2.9 million in loans the city incurred to replace rusty pipes serving a third of the city’s residences.

Mayor David Mayfield opposed taking out so large of a loan before he was elected. Now, he wastes no time patting himself on the back for completion of the project. Whether he also will take credit for the 36.7% rate increase, announcement of which conveniently was delayed until after a recent election, is uncertain.

Administrator Roger Holter inadvertently provided data necessary to see how Marion’s water users are being taxed in the form of inflated water rates.

In explaining why the rate at which the city sells water to Marion County Park and Lake’s improvement district will be just $5.05 per 1,000 gallons (up 3.7%), he told council members that this is the amount it actually costs the city to purify water.

City residents instead will pay $6.80 (up 34.7%) for the same 1,000 gallons, purely as a tax to pay for improvements. That’s in addition to a $39.63 base rate (up 32.1%), which city users, but not lake users, pay just to be connected to the service. The first 1,000 gallons they use is thrown in with the base price.

Holter presented three plans to council members Monday night. They selected the one with the lowest base and the highest usage rate supposedly to help low-income residents.

While it’s true that many single-person households — primarily, older residents living on Social Security — may get by with just the “free” 1,000 gallons included in the base rate, water consumption isn’t a reflection of affluence except for those spending a small fortune keeping grass from turning brown, as it naturally does, each summer.

Automatic dishwashers, especially newer ones, use far less water than is consumed when washing dishes by hand. Modern front-loading, high-efficiency clothes washers use far less water than older models. Toilets installed within the past few years use only a tiny fraction of the water used by toilets that haven’t been updated. That’s particularly true if an older toilet occasionally leaks, as many do.

As with electricity, water use among people of modest means typically is higher than it is among people of affluent means. What makes sense are graduated rates like Goessel charges. Rates start out low for early increments of 1,000 gallons and rise sharply, as a deterrent to waste, for additional 1,000-gallon increments.

Also beneficial would be a rate, like the rates charged by many private utilities, that measures precise use, rather than use rounded up to the next full 1,000 gallons. Under Marion’s system, use 1,001 gallons a month and you’ll pay for 2,000 — the same price you’d pay if you used 1,999 gallons.

Imagine going to a gas station and buying gas only in 10-gallon increments. Chances are, you wouldn’t put up with it. But for some reason, customers — who, as citizens, also are owners — rarely challenge the pricing structure imposed on such things as city water.

The fairest way to pay for improvements in infrastructure is to charge them to what benefits most from infrastructure — property. That means property taxes, which ultimately tax people based on their wealth.

Marion can’t, however, because it already has one of the highest property tax rates in the county — 71.944 mills, 65.2% higher than the rate in Hillsboro. With lower water, electric, and property tax rates, is it any surprise Hillsboro tends to attract more businesses than Marion?

Marion blames its high property taxes on a large number of tax-exempt properties, primarily government offices. It ignores the fact that Hillsboro faces the same challenge with such things as Tabor College and the MB Foundation being similarly tax-exempt.

The push for generating more property tax revenue in Marion is what has been behind the almost breakneck speed with which the city has been attempting to sell buildings and lots in its industrial park.

It’s not just to pay off loans the city incurred on some of those properties. The building it agreed to sell Monday night has been costing the city $9,920.12 a year in taxes because it wasn’t being used for tax-exempt governmental purposes. Get rid of that bill and replace it with taxes collected from the property and the city has more than a minor incentive in selling anything and everything it can, even if some of the uses for the properties don’t match what the city’s master plan would call for.

When we get past questions of civility — including $50 the city spent this week on civility and ethics training for Zach Collett before he takes office as a council member in January — the reality is that what motivates most decisions comes down to cold, hard cash.

The sooner it’s obtained, and the more its sources can be locked in to rarely changing things like utility rates, the easier it becomes to use other revenue increases to pay for things we may or may not need, like employee bonuses and raises designed to reduce turnover even though all businesses seem to be facing the same challenges and there’s little evidence that throwing money at them is the answer.

This isn’t to suggest that any of what the city has done is wrong or that we should throw the rascals out. It is, however, a suggestion that things are rarely as simple and clear-cut as they seem, and the best way to make sure all implications are fully discussed and understood is to get them out in public to be debated and questioned sooner than with a Friday evening release of a partial packet of information for a Monday afternoon meeting, when final action is to be taken.

More than anything, a compressed timetable for discussion is why Marion politics often seem so contentious. We don’t know whether facts brought up in this editorial might have influenced council votes Monday, but we’d like to think the more information and discussion are encouraged, the better our elected representatives’ decisions will be.

We particularly wonder what goes on behind closed doors in discussions like Monday’s about computer security. It’s doubtful council members have enough technical background to discuss anything sensitive enough to be of value to someone trying to damage city’s computers. If so, why be secret unless it is to avoid embarrassment for someone who clicked on a link that downloaded a computer “worm,” which in turn peppered dozens of email accounts with amateurish attempts to propagate by tricking others into infecting computers?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Dec. 16, 2021

 

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