By Allen Edmonds
In a well-attended but orderly and reasonably cordial public hearing, Belton citizens questioned City Council and staff members for more than an hour Tuesday night on a proposed water hike of 14 percent, due to take effect with the Fiscal 2021 budget in April of this year.
The public hearing is just one step in the budget approval process. The council will hold other work sessions over the next month before voting on final approval in late March.
The 14 percent rate hike includes a 10 percent raise to deal with the city’s water infrastructure, which includes some 25 miles of clay and asbestos pipes that have reached the end of their life expectancy. The bulk of those pipes were installed as the city mushroomed in the 1950s with the construction of the Richards Gebaur Air Force Base.
But citizens, including retired Belton School District Finance Director Kirby Hall, expressed concerns about transparency on the part of the city – citing times figures or reasoning had changed with little or no explanation.
Hall referenced two specific subjects. In case, he said, residents have been told that sanitary sewer rates would increase by 12.5 percent due to a service increase of that amount by the Little Blue Valley Sewer District. However, he said, he later found out that only half the city’s sanitary sewer service was provided by Little Blue Valley. The other half is provided by the city’s own water treatment plant.
Assistant City Manager Sheila Ernzen said during the hearing that all residents were being charged the full 12.5 percent and the extra would be used to reduce infiltration/inflow – the seepage of groundwater and stormwater into city collection systems, reducing the efficiency of the treatment process.
“This is what I mean – we need full transparency,” he said, telling saying the city loses credibility with its citizens when such answers have to be drawn out.
He also questioned an answer given to a citizen regarding bonds, and why bonds couldn’t be issued for this project the way they had been in 2013 for the new water tower, water treatment plant and aged pipes.
Ernzen said that since the water fund is an “enterprise fund,” all financing must be repaid by users only, ruling out the issuance of General Obligation bonds. However, the 2013 project was financed by Revenue Bonds, which are being paid back at the approximate rate of $17 per water account for a nearly 20 more years.
Again, Hall felt the explanation to taxpayers could have been more clear.
In another example, citizen James Pryan asked a pair of direct questions when he took the floor. In his second question, he asked Ernzen directly if money paid as part of a water bill ever ends up in the General Fund.
Ernzen’s direct answer was “no,” however, just two weeks ago, City Manager Alexa Barton gave a full presentation on how a percentage of water payments do, in fact, go to reimburse city administration services such as human resources, accounting, printing and other functions the water department must have to operate but doesn’t provide on its own.
By email the following day, Ernzen explained the misinterpretation this way:
“It didn’t occur to me that Mr. Pryan’s question was referring to Overhead Allocation during the meeting last night. Last night, I was thinking specifically of the payments customers make and that the payments for sewer charges go directly into the Sewer fund, payments for water charges go directly into the Water fund and payment for trash service go directly into the Solid Waste fund.
“The Overhead Allocation is a payment that the water and wastewater funds make to the General Fund to reimburse costs incurred by those funds that were originally paid by the General Fund. Similarly, the funds pay other vendors, such as Evergy for electricity or Ansell Healthcare Products LLC for safety equipment.”
She said on reflection, she could “completely see” Pryan was asking about Overhead Allocation, “but I didn’t see it last night when he asked the question.”
Other citizens told the council that in single-income families, a significant increase in an already unusually large water bill would result “in a choice between water and food.”
Councilmember Stephanie Davidson said she could sympathize, citing a unexpected $16,000 water pipe repair bill on her private property.