The big question going into the Litchfield City Council meeting on Thursday, April 4, was what rate increase–if any–could Litchfield residents be expecting on the water and sewer bills for the upcoming fiscal year.
The answer? The council approved an eight percent increase for water rates and a 12 percent increase for sewer rates, but not without a lengthy discussion from the aldermen and the city's budget officials.
After a public hearing for the budget 15 minutes prior to the regular council meeting drew no discussion or comments, the council went right to work in discussing a proposed 12 percent sewer rate increase after approving the minutes and payment of bills.
City Budget Officer Levi Suhrenbrock spoke first, saying that the eight and 12 percent increases did not mean that the citizens' bills were going up 20 percent. Suhrenbrock provided examples of the increase, based on his actual water and sewer bill from Nov. 2018 and Jan. 2019.
January 2019 Example
Original 30.08 34.88 5.00 69.96
Increase 2.41 4.19 0.00 6.60
Revised 32.49 39.07 5.00 76.56
Total Percent Increase = 9.43%
November 2018 Example
Original 20.30 30.72 5.00 56.02
Increase 1.62 3.69 0.00 5.31
Revised 21.92 34.41 5.00 61.33
Total Percent Increase = 9.48%
Suhrenbrock noted that the actual total increase is just under 9.5 percent when the rates are together.
He said that the increases are necessary due to the fact that expenses have increased, but in four of the last eight years, the council did not increase rates at all. Suhrenbrock said that this has meant that the reserves for the sewer and water fund have been reduced, which could affect the city's ability to pay for projects such as the sewer line for the lake area.
City Attorney Kit Hantla added that the state mandates that the water and sewer funds are self-sustaining.
Suhrenbrock said that Litchfield isn't the only community facing increases. He said that Taylorville's water and sewer rates are expected to double over four years, while Edwardsville is facing 25 percent increases each of the next two years, plus a 16.7 percent increase the third year. Suhrenbrock said that Staunton assesses a $25 per-user debt service fee and last year implemented a drainage fee.
He would also address Alderman Ray Kellenberger's question at the last meeting about how other funds seem to be able to pull money from other areas or the general fund. Suhrenbrock said that the state restricts how water and sewer money can be used and that the other funds can have increased revenue, mentioning sales tax and gambling tax revenues.
Alderman Woodrow Street said he was planning to vote for the increase because it was necessary, but asked what to tell people who live paycheck to paycheck. Suhrenbrock said that the increases are based on the numbers the city provides for the budget to finish the projects they want completed.
Alderman Dwayne Gerl said that he has been asked why taxpayers have to pay for something they don't use, like the sewer line at the lake. Mayor Steve Dougherty said that the same could be said about the schools or library or other things funded by taxes.
Gerl asked if there was a way fees could be assessed to those who use the campground to help offset the cost of the project. Hantla said that it could, but that money would probably go to the general fund. Alderman Street said that a fee for the campground customers sounded like something the council should look into in the future.
Alderman Kellenberger asked what the impact would be if the council approved the 12 percent increase for sewer, but did not increase the water rates. Suhrenbrock said he is never in favor of a zero percent increase due to costs to run the water and sewer plants increasing each year, but said that the water fund is in better shape than the sewer fund. He added that by not increasing the water rates enough to cover the cost increases, the city would still be digging into its reserves.
Alderman Gerl mentioned that the sewer plant would be paid off in two years, but Suhrenbrock said that the city should be prepared to use that money for necessary projects in the future and repairs to the plant that might be necessary.
Alderman Street asked Street Superintendent David Crocks about the cost of repairing the water and sewer lines, which also comes out of those funds. Crocks said that the cost to repair the lines is $250,000 for every 300 feet and that recently the city repaired a 20-foot section, which cost $49,000.
Mayor Dougherty would call for the vote shortly after that and the sewer increase would pass by a 7-1 margin, with Alderman Kellenberger voting no. A short time later, the council would pass the water rate increase, this time 5-3, with Kellenberger, Gerl and Marilyn Sisson voting no.
In between the water and sewer rate increase votes, the council discussed one of the big ticket projects that will be using some of the sewer reserve funds. The running of a sewer line from the lake area to the wastewater treatment plant was originally budgeted for $1.17 million last year, but is expected to cost $1.5 million to complete.
Ted LaBelle of Crawford, Murphy and Tilly was on hand to request $48,900 for engineering and $14,000 for easement work after the city switched the direction of the project due to concerns over property owners granting easements.
Alderman David Hollo balked at the request, saying that a great deal of money had already been allocated to the engineering firm and some of that work should be usable for the redesigned route. He also suggested that the group get the easement completed first, rather than doing the engineering work and having it rendered moot if the easement did not go through.
After further discussion, the request was not acted on so the council committee could discuss with LaBelle where the project should go from here.
The rest of the meeting would go fairly quickly as none of the other 11 items drew much discussion. The council would approve the awarding of bids for water treatment chemicals, approve the budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, approve the budget amendments for the 2018-19 fiscal year, approve the purchase of a sign for Madison Park and approve the use of dumpsters for the city's annual clean-up.
They would also approve a mowing and trimming bid for the 2019 season (approximately 29 mowings) with Precision Lawn Care of Litchfield for $4,100 per week. City Administrator Tonya Flannery said that Precision was the only bidder and offered to hold prices if the city wished to go with a two-year agreement. The council would agree to the two-year agreement, which passed 8-0.
The council also approved the renewal of health insurance for city employees with Blue Cross Blue Shield through Scheller Insurance. Shannon Hall said that the rates were initially slated to increase by 17 percent, but Scheller Insurance was able to negotiate them down to 7 percent.
Hall added that the employees have a monthly premium they can choose between $6 per month to $219 per month, which would cost $500 to $700 per month if they were bought on their own.
Hall also mentioned that Scheller Insurance was purchased by Diamond Brother Insurance, one of the largest independent insurance agencies in the state. She added that while her bosses may be different and the name may change, nothing else should change.
Before entering closed session at 7:25 p.m., the council approved a contract with Foster and Foster Actuaries for reports for the police and firefighter pension funds, approved expenditures for two tourism grant programs and accepted a bid from Gelly Excavating and Construction for the amount of $4,421,151 for the internal construction of the commerce park on the west side of the I-55.
The council entered closed session to discuss the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees of the public body and took no action afterward.
The aldermen will meet again on Thursday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m.