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Analysis: Council affirms big water rate increase

BUCKEYE LAKE – Village water customers shouldn’t blame Mayor Peggy Wells or Council President Kitty Zwissler for the record water rate increase council members reaffirmed Monday night.

Customers will soon be receiving a 30-day notice about the rate increases that will be effective April 1. No, it’s NOT an early April Fools’ story!

The water rate increase ordinance had its first reading at the December 11, 2017, council meeting. The new rates, covering the next five years, were put together by Water Supervisor Toby Miller, based on a water rate survey conducted last fall by the Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP). The minutes of that council meeting don’t mention Miller’s presentation or any discussion about the increases.

The second of the required three readings was heard at the January 8, 2018, meeting according to the approved minutes for that meeting, but the ordinance was not listed on the agenda.

The ordinance was approved 7-0 at the January 22, 2018, council meeting. Again, the minutes do not reflect any discussion or questions about the rates.

As this writer was preparing a story on the new rates, he noticed that the ordinance did not include the current rates. After comparing the new rates for 2018 with the current rates, this writer discovered that the minimum bill (for up to 2,000 gallons of water per month) was increasing from $31.50 to $35.25 – an increase of 11.9 percent. That’s the largest base rate increase in the water system’s history; the base rate increased just 8.6 percent from 2010 to 2017.

The rate for each additional 1,000 gallons used per month will increase even more dramatically – 53 percent. From 2010 to 2017, it increased a total of 24 percent. That charge is currently $6.50 for each additional 1,000 gallons used per month; it will increase to $9.95 April 1. As a frame of reference, Millersport currently sells bulk water to Buckeye Lake for $5.54 per 1,000 gallons.

Millersport hasn’t increased its rate since 2016. Their rate is expected to increase three percent this year (to $5.71 per 1,000 gallons) and then annually by that amount for the next four years. Even with Millersport’s increase this year, Buckeye Lake will be marking up water to its customers by almost 75 percent.

The average Buckeye Lake water customer uses just under 5,000 gallons per month. The monthly bill for that average customer (based on 5,000 gallons) will increase 28 percent. A 10,000-gallon per month user’s bill would go up 38 percent.

These double-digit increases seemed reminiscent of the large sewer increases that Licking County Commissioners proposed in early 2010 to fund expansion of the wastewater treatment serving the Buckeye Lake area. A 66 percent increase was proposed with more moderate increases set for the next four years. By January 2012, the rate would be $62.40 per month per EDU.

A small local volunteer group consisting of the late and sorely missed, Merv Bartholow, Tim Wiesert, Wells, Prince and Zwissler took an in-depth look at the district’s finances and financing plan for the expansion. The group found a one percent loan, saving millions in interest payments compared to the cost of the revenue bonds the commissioners were planning to issue. It’s now 2018 – six years beyond 2012. Today’s rate is $48 per month per EDU, 23 percent below the rate originally set for 2012!

This writer thought the water increases looked too high and deserved similar scrutiny. Overall, Buckeye Lake’s system is very healthy. The debt fund balance on 1/1/18 was $328,372.08; the annual debt payment is $50,289.36 so the current balance provides 6.5 years of coverage. The capital improvement fund balance on 1/1/18 was $356,637.85.

Wells and Zwissler agreed that the increases looked too high. Prince went to work with Miller last week. By last Friday afternoon, they had come up a much more moderate increase for 2018, while acknowledging that more study is needed to set the amount of the modest annual increases recommended by RCAP. The primary problem for 2018 is how customer payments are being allocated between operating, debt and capital improvements. The operating fund is experiencing cash flow problems that started in 2016.

The revised rates for 2018 are a $34.00 per month base rate (up 7.9 percent); each additional 1,000 gallons used per month would cost $7.00 (up 7.7 percent). The average customer at 5,000 gallons per month would pay $55.00 (up 7.8 percent); a 10,000-gallon per month customer would pay $90.00 (up 7.8 percent). Future rates were expected to increase 3 – 4 percent annually, dependent on further research and review.

This revised rate and a letter, signed by Wells, Zwissler and Miller, explaining the proposed change were emailed to council members late Friday afternoon. Council members were asked to rescind the original ordinance before it becomes effective on February 21. They were also asked to consider approving the revised ordinance as an emergency so as not to delay the effective date of the increase.

Former Council President Charlene Hayden fired the first shot from Florida to derail the effort to moderate the rate increase. An email, sent to everyone except Wells and Zwissler, was read by a friend during public comments. Hayden wrote:

“I found the memo you received regarding Ordinance 2017- 24 very disturbing. Whoever thinks that ordinance should be rescinded is grossly uninformed or they are attempting to destroy our water system. Furthermore, no one in the Village knows more about our water system than Toby Miller and I would bet that his name has been signed to this memo without his wholehearted approval. I know, without even talking with him, that he would think the ordinance should go forward and the rates should be set as the gentleman from RCAP suggested at a meeting toward the end of last year. RCAP has employees who are knowledgeable regarding every aspect of public water systems. Why would the Village officials choose to alter plans that were set and voted on at a previous council meeting because Millersport and Charles Prince think that is more prudent? First of all, Charles Prince is not a water engineer so I don’t think he is any kind of expert capable of dealing with complex water system issues. Second, Mr. Prince has done nothing but put the Village down through his inaccurate newspaper articles. Third, Mr. Prince doesn’t even live in the Village, so why should he be treated any differently than Stacey McCloud who was relieved of her duties on the Planning Commission because she was not a Village resident. There seems to be an inconsistent application of rules by the Village leadership. In addition, I don’t think Millersport should have any say as to how we set our water rates. Meeting with Millersport sounds fishy to me. Should we be concerned whether, or not, Millersport’s water system is healthy?

Council members, I hope you will delve into the facts of this situation and see which are accurate and which are not. We need our water system to be healthy so we don’t end up in the same situation as Licking County Water and Wastewater. If I were on council, I would definitely go the RCAP route. The very last thing this Village needs is a depleted water department. It is imperative that our Village stays in charge of our own system.”

Council member Arletta Ruton then jumped into the battle, passing out copies of a letter from Millersport Village Administrator Vince Popo, expressing disappointment about learning about Buckeye Lake’s water rate increase in The Beacon. He sent a draft Letter to the Editor to Miller, Wells and Zwissler, but not to The Beacon. Ruton claimed Popo’s letter started the review of the increases and that he was improperly getting involved in Buckeye Lake’s business. She also questioned Prince’s involvement and motives. Like Hayden, Ruton also contended that Wells and Zwissler forced Miller to accept the more moderate increase.

Miller later refuted both Hayden and Ruton’s claims that he had been pressured into accepting the revised rate. He acknowledged there were two ways to accomplish the needed increases – quickly or spread out over several years. Miller said the revised rate would work for 2018, but warned that rates would have be revised this fall for the next four years after additional research and review is completed.

Council member Bob Masone, MD, then picked up the baton. “I don’t think we should make any changes,” he said. “It might make people conserve water.”

“I don’t have a problem doing this (rescinding/replacing),” Miller said.

Masone called the rate analysis “silliness,” stating, “I don’t make decisions on this.” He praised the RCAP rate survey. When Wells brought up the financial impact on residents, adding that they are also paying this month for the village’s new five-mill operating levy, Masone said, “There will be increases in people’s income.” He also told Wells, “You can’t get your way.” Zwissler also expressed concerns about the financial impact on residents.

Planning and Zoning Commission chair Karen Cookston also opposed the rescindment from the audience.

After some confusion about whether a motion was needed to keep the rate increase unchanged, Zwissler and Wells’ requests for a motion to rescind were ignored. Masone was heard commenting, “If you keep me here any longer, I’m going to pay everybody’s water bill for the rest of the year.”

In other business Monday night, Wells presented a lengthy Mayor’s Report. She told Council’s Finance Committee during a committee meeting before the council meeting that she has appointed the Hayes Law Offices of Pataskala as the village’s law director, replacing Mark Gardner who will continue to serve as the village’s prosecutor. Her appointment must be confirmed by village council. Committee members recommended approving the appointment and authorizing the mayor to sign the contract.

Attorney Dan Hayes, who previously served as council president in Pataskala and has extensive experience as a prosecutor and magistrate, will be the village’s primarily contact. Attorney Laurie Wells, no relation to Mayor Wells, who specializes in real estate law will also be available to the village. Wells said she made the change to get the legal expertise necessary to move aggressively on code enforcement and tearing down dilapidated houses.

Hayes had planned to attend the council meeting, but came down with the flu early Monday. Council members decided to defer taking action on the mayor’s appointment and committee recommendation until Hayes could be present. That is expected to happen at the February 26 meeting.

Wells also announced that the long awaited contract with ODNR to purchase a small village-owned lot adjacent to the AMIL spillway access road has been received. ODNR will pay $22,000 for the lot and has agreed to replace the existing blacktop sidewalk with a concrete walk. Wells suggested the “windfall” be placed in a separate account to start addressing property maintenance code violations/clean ups, etc.

She also asked Community Development Chair Doug Poorman, DVM, if his committee would like to take over the annual Lake Fest in June. While it had been former Mayor Clay Carroll’s pet project, Wells said she didn’t have time to do it. Poorman said his committee will discuss it and may ask Carroll if he’s interested in keeping it going.

Wells also outlined recent efforts to get rid of large puddles of water that accumulate on Highland Avenue just west of East Street after rain storms and snow melts. She said a shallow ditch was dug along Highland and down around the platted but undeveloped portion of Monroe Street to drain the street. It’s a tougher problem to drain the area on Highland closest to East Street, Wells explained. So far the only solution is to use a sump pump to siphon the water up and haul it away after each rainfall. She acknowledged that’s a bit labor intensive but neighbors deserve some relief from the pooling water. The village will be applying for a grant later this year to fund a more permanent solution.

In her report on the Planning & Zoning Commission, Cookston said members are still looking at bed & breakfast regulations, “still researching height restrictions,” and working on a new application for commercial development.

Village council’s next regular meeting is set for 7 p.m. on Monday, February 26, in the village hall.

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