City hikes water rates
Iola water consumers will begin paying 7.5 percent more for water starting June 1, followed by another 10 percent increase Jan. 1.
The rate hikes followed an extensive discussion Monday among Iola City Council members, one which led to a split vote as to whether to approve the hikes.
The 3-3 vote sent the matter to Mayor Jon Wells, who voted in favor of the increase.
The Council agreed to postpone the hikes one month, from May 1 to June 1, at the request of Councilwoman Nancy Ford. “I want to make sure we’re giving our community enough time to let it sink in,” she said. She cited the Register’s April 10 article, titled “Expect water rate hike.”
The article “made it sound and read like this was still under discussion.”
She voted in favor of the increases, and was joined by Chase Martin and Michael Middleton. Opposed were Ron Ballard, Aaron Franklin and Gene Myrick. Councilman Mark Peters was absent, as was Bob Shaughnessy, whose resignation from the Council was announced later in the meeting.
In addition to the rate hikes, Council members agreed to make the city’s 2018 water plant loan payment of about $670,000 from Iola’s capital projects fund instead of the water fund, with the stipulation the city eventually repay that money back into capital projects at some point.
The Council also has announced its intention, prior to shaping the city’s 2019 budget over the summer, to give City Administrator Sid Fleming a series of proposed spending cuts.
THE VOTE came after another hour’s worth of discussion, focused on whether the city could get by with fewer transfers out of the water fund, or whether cuts could be found elsewhere.
Franklin’s opposition was based on his preference for rate hikes of 7.5 percent in June and another 7.5 percent next January, instead of the 10 percent that was approved.
“Is it the city’s position that each of our consumers can just find additional funds for (higher) rates?” Franklin asked City Administrator Sid Fleming.
“I don’t know that it’s our position,” Fleming responded. “I’d be interested in knowing, what’s the Council’s desire for an alternative?”
Fleming spelled out the issues with the water fund, which have persisted since the water plant opened in 2005, without a subsequent rate hike to help make the loan payments until 2011.
Since then, maintaining the fund has been a struggle, despite subsequent rate increases in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Mayor Jon Wells described the water fund as insolvent.
“Even if we raise nothing and transfer nothing, we’ll still come up about $100,000” in the red, Wells noted. “We’re losing money by selling at the rate we are.”
Ballard noted the city has made no spending concessions while asking customers to pay more.
“What are we doing as a staff that we can’t get this right?” Franklin asked, noting the 2011 rate hike was an 18-percent increase. Are repeated rate hikes “just the cost of doing business. We all sit up here, beating a dead horse, having the same conversation. Are we looking at this wrong?”
The struggles stem from the city’s attempts to keep rates low while costs continued to rise, Fleming replied.
The city’s aging infrastructure, with water lines built prior to World War II still in use, also require more funds. On top of the day-to-day operation and maintenance costs, Fleming hopes to begin setting aside additional funds for long-range plans for the water system.
“Even our water plant, at 13 years old, is going to start showing its age,” Fleming said. “Those are major treatment units, and they’re eventually going to fail, and they’re not going to be cheap.”
“The government’s culture, from the top at Washington, D.C., to us at Iola, Kan., is to tax the population,” Franklin replied. “That’s what we do. We run into fiscal issues, and we just ask for more money. Or we don’t even ask. We just take it.”
Franklin said the water rates, while independent of electric rates and property taxes, still account for asking residents to pay more for the same services.
“They just find a way to pay more,” Franklin said. “I just hope it’s also the city’s culture that we look for efficiencies. That we do what we are repeatedly asking the public to do, which is be uncomfortable. As I’ve said for three years, there are a couple of sides to this story. It’s expense and it’s revenue. And we always seem to look to the side of the revenue.”