(Posted Sept. 26, 2018)
By Amanda Ensinger, Staff Writer
Residents in Mount Sterling could see a dramatic increase in their water and sewer bills due to legislation now under consideration by village council.
The purpose of the proposed legislation is to raise funds to pay back the crippling debt the village incurred as a result of enhancements to the wastewater plant and construction of a new water plant.
“We have to pay $250,000 every six months because of the debt previous administrations incurred as a result of these two projects,” said Mayor Billy Martin. “When we make this payment in December, we will be broke. (The fee increase) is our only option.”
The village owes $3.78 million for the work at the wastewater plant and $9.5 million for construction of the new water plant.
“I can’t believe past administrations burdened this small community with this debt. We never needed all of these things,” Martin said. “The water plant produces three times what we need and alone costs $10,000 a month for electricity. I call this stupidity.”
The water plant produces 900,000 gallons of water a month; the village uses approximately 200,000 gallons a month.
Despite comments that the projects should have been scaled back, the Ohio State Auditor says the village has to pay back the loans.
The proposed legislation calls for raising the monthly debt fee for water and sewer by between $49.40 and $50.85 for residential properties. For commercial businesses, the rate would increase by $50.25. The volume rate paid by industrial businesses would go up by $5.95.
Currently, residents pay a monthly debt fee of between $20.40 and $21.85, commercial businesses pay $21.25, and industrial businesses pay a volume rate of $8.35.
“For residents, if you have a $30 water/sewer bill it will now be $80, or if you have a $100 water/sewer bill it will be $150,” said Becky Martin, council member. “Everyone’s bills won’t double. It is just the debt fee that is increasing.”
She said the rate hike is not an easy decision for council members, and they will be directly impacted, as well.
“I’m a village resident, too, and a business owner, so my bill is going to go up in two places,” Martin said. “We don’t take this decision lightly and know the impact this will have on residents. We know people live on fixed incomes, but this is our only option. We are doing the bare minimum to just pay our debt and ensure we have money to cover improvements and repairs.”
Martin said council would revisit the increase in the future if the village’s finances improve.
“No one is here trying to get rich. We are here because we love this community and don’t want it to fold,” she said.
Not all council members support the proposal. Some argued the village could take money from its capital improvement fund to cover some of the costs until further research is done.
“This has been agonizing me for a while, and I’m wondering why some of the loan debt can’t be paid out of the capital improvement fund, so we don’t have to pass as much of this onto the residents and businesses,” said Rebecca Burns, council member. “We would have to get approval from the state to change our five-year plan, but basically the RITA (regional income tax) money could go towards this.”
Other council members rebutted, saying the use of capital improvement funds would provide only a temporary fix, that the village would be short on finances again in a few months. They also said if they spend the capital improvement funds, the village won’t have money to repair roads and make other upgrades. Currently, the village has $230,000 in its capital improvements fund.
“We have looked into this. The auditor said we need to increase the water/sewer bills and that this won’t fix the overall problem,” Mayor Martin. “I get no pleasure in doing this and have made hundreds of phone calls to the auditor and attorney general. This is what needs to be done and is the minimum rate increase to pay our debt.”
The council voted 3-3 on the first reading of the fee increase legislation. Those voting in favor of the proposed increases were Lowell Anderson, Becky Martin and David Timmons. Council members Rebecca Burns, Tammy VanSickle, and Tom Ward. Mayor Martin broke the tie with a “yes” vote to move the legislation forward for a second reading at council’s next meeting on Oct. 8.
If the legislation ends up passing, the increases will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.