Saturday, December 14, 2013

TOP STORY >> Lonoke mulls water, sewer hike

Leader staff writer

The Lonoke City Council discussed raising water and sewer rates during its meeting this week, after members received the preliminary 2014 budget.

Alderman Koy Butler said the city’s rates are lower than those of several nearby cities.

Lonoke has a minimum charge of $11 for 1,000 gallons of water. A residential rate comparison showed that the charges for a minimum of 1,000 gallons are $10 in Hazen, $10.86 in Carlisle, $12.09 in England, $14.71 in Ward and $15.64 in Beebe. Lonoke is the third lowest of those. Cabot, Jacksonville and Grand Prairie Bayou Two have a minimum charge for 2,000 gallons. The rates are $8.70 in Jacksonville, $16.70 in Cabot and $21 in Grand Prairie Bayou Two.

The minimum charge to Lonoke residents for sewer is $6.61 per 1,000 gallons. The other minimum rates for 1,000 gallons are $5.10 in Cabot, $7.40 in Carlisle, $8 in Hazen, $8.53 in England, $9.07 in Beebe and $14.63 in Jacksonville. Lonoke is the second lowest.

The city with the lowest minimum combined rate is Hazen with $18. Lonoke comes in second with a combined minimum rate of $17.61 among the cities who have the same 1,000-gallon minimum for both water and sewer.

The council’s discussion was sparked by a Budget and Finance Committee recommendation that the city consider giving 20 percent of the county tax revenue back to the police department. That portion was given to the water and sewer fund in 2012.

If the committee’s recommendation is approved, how the one-cent county tax money is distributed will change but the projected total revenue figure will not. The 2014 budget lists that total as $432,000. By comparison, the city’s 2013 budget projected there would be $424,000 in revenue from the county, and Lonoke had collected $328,157 as of September.

The breakdown of that money is that police receive 22 percent, which includes 3 percent for the library and 5 percent for the depot. The fire department gets 5 percent, animal control’s piece of the pie is 3 percent, the street department receives 25 percent and the water and sewer budget sees 45 percent. The water and sewer fund had $397,894 on Nov. 30, according to the recommendation.

Butler — a committee member — said, if the recommendation weren’t approved, the police department would be out of money by the end of next year. They would also have to use all of their reserves, he said.

“They’re scrimping by,” Butler added.

Alderman Pat Howell disagreed. He explained that the council has provided for police since the county tax distributions were adjusted. “We have never, ever turned them down on anything they’ve asked for…I don’t know where they’ve had to cut back,” Howell said.

He asked the council to give an example of something police have had to do without, but no one gave him one.

Howell also explained that money in the water and sewer fund could be used elsewhere, while funds in the police department’s budget cannot be used for anything but the police department. He also said, “They will be provided for whether we raise water rates or not.”

Alderman Janie Derning agreed with Howell. “We’re not going to let them do without something that they need,” she said.

Alderman Wendell Walker explained that, in 2011, water rates were raised by $2.40.

He said, “in the same sentence” that was approved with, employees received raises.

Walker said, “We cannot make the citizen pay for everything that we need done.”

Butler pointed out that the water and sewer rates are the only income source the city has, with the exception of a bond issue. The council has also talked about pushing for a bond issue at recent meetings.

The city is not coming up with enough revenue to cover a $70,000 water and sewer bond payment, Butler continued.

He said, while water and sewer rate revenues cover some of the payments, Lonoke’s one-cent county tax funds pay whatever is leftover.

The alderman suggested upping the charge for the minimum 1,000 gallons, but Mayor Wayne McGee said the increase should be on the rate for additional usage.

Lonoke’s charge for additional usage is $3.35 for water and $1.57 for sewer. But Butler said there are fewer residents who need additional water and sewer.

Alderman Michael Florence said the city should get a rural water company to conduct a water and sewer rate study. McGee said the study could be done for free.

No consensus was reached, although many on the council agreed that rates should be looked at.

The mayor said more information on what it costs to provide water to Lonoke residents would also be available at the council’s next meeting.

In other business:

 The council was told that the Budget and Finance Committee has suggested raising pay for firefighters from $15 per fire run to $20 per fire run.

Firefighters already receive $20 for drills, according to the recommendation. There is enough revenue in the budget to cover the $5 increase, but the current rate is in the fire department’s handbook that was adopted by ordinance, it states.

That means the ordinance must be amended to make the change. The rest of the budget was not discussed, and it was not voted on.

 The council voted 6-1 to name Antujuan Terry as assistant director of the Lonoke Community Center. Terry already worked for the center, and the promotion does not come with a pay raise.

Alderman Janie Derning voted against the measure because none of the other departments have assistant directors and, she said, the center doesn’t need one.

Community center director Mike Brown said he wanted someone to be able to make decisions while he was away.

City Attorney Camille Bennett supports the idea because the community center is open when city hall is not. The mayor explained that he or the city clerk have to make decisions when Brown in unavailable.