By Dan Spalding
WARSAW – City Council heard an in-depth explanation for the need to raise the stormwater utility rate over a five-year period and they appear to agree.
Numerous capital projects and an insufficient level of revenue are two of the reasons the city is seeking to phase in a series of increases that will reach $8 per month in five years.
The current monthly rate of $2.95 was set in 2013 when it was established, but to accomplish what the utility is doing currently relies on about $700,000 in money from both the street and utility departments.
Mayor Joe Thallemer introduced the fee proposal two weeks ago and then followed up on Monday night with a detailed rationale with input from MS4 Stormwater Coordinator Ryan Workman and a consultant.
MS4 refers to “Municipal Separate Stormwater Sewer Systems” assigned to communities by the federal government. The city was identified as an MS4 community about eight years ago.
As a result, the utility is responsible for carrying out federally mandated stormwater requirements through a variety of measures. The policies are mandated by the US Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
The utility works to control stormwater runoff into lakes and streams and also has a required educational component.
Under the rate hike plan, rates would rise roughly a dollar per year until it reaches $8 in 2025. Eight years ago, the range of fees in other Indiana communities stretched from $1 to $12.40 per month, according to information provided by the city.
All residential customers pay the same flat fee. The commercial rate structure is based in part on the amount of runoff.
“We’re not just dealing with the infrastructure and capital projects. There’s a significant amount of money that’s required to basically take care of our utility by meeting these regulations,” Thallemer said.
Much of the work involves erosion runoff control, flooding controls and pollution prevention.
The utility has “large, expensive, and numerous projects,” Thallemer said.
“As a community with over a hundred lakes in the county and high water tables and uneven soil types – we just literally don’t have a shortage of projects,” Thallemer said. “Those projects are the crux of what we’re trying to do to adjust the fee so we can get more of these projects done.”
A recent financial management report from Baker Tilly says the current rate is inadequate to accommodate a list of looming projects.
“With the amount of projects we need to get done, we cannot sustain our utility and do the improvements that are critical in our community with $2.95,” Thallemer said.
Workman said the city is looking at four projects next year. One involves projects with the town of Winona Lake involving underground infrastructure near the future roundabout at the south end of Argonne Road. The others are on the north side of Winona Lake and at Pike Lake and Kelly Park pond; all of that comes with a total cost of about $1.4 million.
Much of the work seeks to reduce runoff, pollution and flooding in a community that is growing and includes three public lakes.
Left unchecked, Workman said, “Ultimately, it would continue to get worse exponentially.”
After extensive discussion, council members recapped their thoughts before voting 6-0 in support of the rate hike. Councilman Michael Klondaris was absent.
Councilwoman Cindy Dobbins pointed out that having stormwater projects rely on money from the street department and sewer department takes away from those departments’ own projects. Council President Jack Wilhite said such moving of funds “muddies” the budget picture.
Councilman Jerry Frush wondered whether the city should have started out with a high rate years ago, but said he sees the need for an adjustment now.
Wilhite said that that approach has been part of the council’s conservative nature.
Councilwoman Diane Quance said she likes the fact it would be phased in but adds that it’s an “extremely conservative” approach.
“I don’t think that anybody can argue that we’re planning to get where we need to be today taking five years to do it,” Quance said.
Councilmen Jeff Grose and Josh Finch also spoke in favor of the plan.
A second vote and a public hearing are still necessary for its approval.
In other matters, council approved plans to set the salary of the newly created community development director to $83,000.
The new position will oversee some of the tasks currently under the umbrella of the planning and zoning department. The city has not announced who will fill the position.