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Brown water, higher rates, or both?

Council frustrated about options for capital improvement

Staff writer

Blaming past administrations, state government, and even the weather, city councilors lamented the tribulations of deciding whether to raise water and electric rates and whether to go forward with a waterline project that will deepen the city’s debt load of $4.4 million.

“It’s a hard sell,” councilor Chad Adkins said, “the idea that we have a good water treatment facility, then people don’t drink the water or you get brown water. Then, on top of that, you talk about raising water rates. You wanna pay more for your brown water?

The waterline capital improvement project would replace old pipes in an effort to improve water quality in the city.

Administrator Roger Holter suggested postponing the project beyond 2016 because the city isn’t generating sufficient revenue to pay its debt load. Milder-than-normal weather conditions have the city facing a shortfall from utility revenues, he said.

An increase of water rates didn’t help, either. The city is projected to get just $499,000 of the $615,000 it initially hoped for.

“We have seen a large conservation effort by our citizens,” Holter said.

Mayor Todd Heitschmidt was uneasy about delaying the waterline improvement project, and councilor Chad Adkins said delaying the project would push back a roads improvement project slated for 2017.

Holter reminded councilors of a commitment they made to leave alone water and electrical rates and look to refuse and sewer rates for more funding.

Heitschmidt said nothing was promised.

“Things change,” he said. “That’s something Topeka doesn’t understand. We tried, and I don’t think any of us council members actually promised not to do that. I don’t think we ever said there’s certain issues that are off the table — that’s not good government.”

Holter suggested reducing the scale of the waterline project, or doing it over five years instead of doing it all in one year.

Heitschmidt rebuffed that suggestion, saying another council could come in and halt the project before it’s completed.

“Because of what’s happened in the past, why wouldn’t that happen in the future?” he said.

Adkins said he had talked to businesses in the community that are “maxed” for funds, and that raising utility rates would be “only destructive” for them.

“With that being said,” he added, “we also have to get our money from somewhere.”

Heitschmidt lauded the council’s fortitude.

“I appreciate this council stepping up and addressing issues that have been let go way too long,” he said. “There were political decisions made in this town that do not make sense for the long-term benefit of this community, and we can’t change those.”

Heitschmidt said the city is trying to raise its tax base through economic improvements.

“We’ve taken on some major projects to get infrastructure back into play,” he said. “We need to get our tax base up, we’re going to need to invest in economic development.”

Council did not decide whether to go forward with the water project.

Last modified June 25, 2015

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