Discussion of increasing water and sewer rates caused a heated debate on Monday night during the Lonoke City Council meeting.
Alderman Koy Butler, who is also on the the finance committee, suggested that the council consider increasing water and sewer rates to help offset some of the city future operational costs. It was the budget and finance committee’s recommendation that the council reconsider the distribution of the county sales tax, giving the 20-percent portion back to the police department fund that was given to the water and sewer revenue fund in 2012. By raising rates, Butler said the income would off set the loss of the 20 percent if it is redistributed.
"It’s the only income source the city has," Butler said.
The city was projected to bring in a total of $424,000 from the one cent county tax by the end of the 2013 year. As of September, $328,157 has been collected. The tax revenue is proportioned out by percentage for departments such as police, fire, library, streets, water and sewer. At this time 45 percent is distributed to the water and sewer revenue and 14 percent to the police department.
Butler said because the change in distribution and the police department inability to raise income, not only they will have depleted their entire budget by the end of the year but they will also have to cash in their reserve funds by the end of the 2014 budgeted year. He said by raising rates, it would not only help the police department but other departments as well. Butler said the rates have not been increased since 2011.
"We can’t make the citizens pay for everything that needs to be taken care of," Alderman Wendall Walker said. "We can’t just burden every citizen in Lonoke because the water and sewer rate is the only way to generate money."
According to Alderman Pat Howell, the reason behind the original change in distribution of county tax to the police department was because the city can utilize funds as it becomes necessary if it is placed into the water and sewer revenue. He said if the funds are allocated for a specific area, they can not be used for anything other than the department they were designated for. Howell said the police department has received everything they have asked for and are not doing without just because the funds are not in their account. He said he is tired of hearing that the police department is being mistreated, when that is not the case.
"They [the police department] will be provided for, whether water rates go up or not," Howell said.
Butler added that the city is not currently generating enough revenue to cover the city’s $70,000 water and sewer bond payment. He said while some the payment is covered with funds generated by water and sewer rates, the remaining balance is paid through the city’s one cent county tax funds.
"We need to at least raise it to meet the rates of the surrounding communities," Butler said. "Its the only way without another bond or tax increase. Trust me, I don’t want rates to go up any higher either, but we’ve got to do something."
With a provided rate chart of rates in surrounding communities, including Lonoke, Ward, Beebe, Carlisle, England, Hazen, Cabot, Jacksonville and Grand Prairie Bayou Two, council took note that Lonoke water and sewer rates combined are lower than other communities.
The city has an estimated 1,500 active residential users. At this time, for a minimum of 1,000 gallons on both water and sewer, residents pay a total of $17.61 which includes $11.00 for a minimum of 1,000 gallons of water and $6.61 for a minimum of 1,000 gallons of sewer. Out of the five other communities who charge for a minimum of 1,000 gallons, Hazen has the lowest combined rate of $18 for a minimum of 1,000 gallons of both water and sewer. The highest is Beebe who charges $24.71 for a minimum of 1,000 gallons of both water and sewer.
Cabot, Jacksonville and Grand Prairie Bayou have a 2,000 gallon minimum for water. Of the three, the lowest is Grand Prairie Bayou of $21 for a minimum of 2,000 gallons of water only, sewer is unavailable. The highest was Jacksonville at $26.33 for a minimum of 2,000 gallons of water and 1,000 gallons for sewer. Cabot fell in the middle with a $24.70 charge for a minimum of 2,000 gallons of water and 1,000 gallons for sewer.
While Butler suggested the minimum rates see the increase, Mayor Wayne McGee said the rates of additional gallons exceeding 1,000 be increased. Lonoke’s current rate for additional water usage is $3.35 and additional sewer usage is $1.57.
"We make more money on the back end," McGee said.
"That maybe true, but there aren’t as many of them," Butler said.
Alderman Michael Florence suggested the city have Rural Water company come do a water/sewer rate study and analysis. No further action was taken.
In other city business, community center director Mike Brown said it was the recommendation of the center’s board of directors that community center employee, AnTujuan Terry, be given the title of assistant director. By giving Terry the title, he would be able to approve items in the event Brown is unavailable or on vacation. He would not receive any additional pay for the change in title.
Alderman Janie Derning questioned the need for an assistant director and how the other departments handled items in the event their superior is out of office or unavailable. McGee said when issues arise, the city clerks or himself is contacted. City attorney Camille Bennett said because of the community center operational hours extend past the city office hours, it would be beneficial to have an assistant director in the event Brown and McGee are both unavailable.
Howell, Walker, Efrem Jones, Raymond Hatton, Florence and Butler voted to give Terry the title of assistant director. Janie Derning was against it. The motion passed 6-1.
Also during the meeting, the council unanimously voted to:
-Purchase a windscreen, poles and new for the tennis court in the amount of $3199.68.
-Spend up to $7,000 for the purchase and installation of a flow meter at the water plant.
-Purchase a 2006 International 4300 Grapple truck from One Source Arbor Care in Conroe, TX for $54,500.
-Wave the requirement of competitive bidding for the procurement of chemicals for spraying mosquitoes.
-Wave competitive bidding for the procurement of Aperma Insurance coverage.
- By resolution, request the Democratic County Committee and Republican County Committee to conduct party primaries for the municipal offices up for election in the city for the 2014 year.
-Accept the preliminary budget for 2014.
Danny Whitehurst was absent from the meeting. The next council meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Jan. 13 in the court room at city hall.