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By KEVIN KOELLING
CANNELTON – “Whether we want to or not, we’re going to have to raise the rates,” Cannelton Mayor Mary Snyder said about charges for sewer service provided to city residents. “They haven’t been raised since 2002.”
Speaking at a regular common-council meeting Jan. 14, she said she’d asked Nathan Held, senior project administrator for Indiana 15 Regional Planning Commission, and the chiefs of the city’s utility and sewer departments to attend the meeting for the discussion. City leaders have debated for years how they’ll comply with a directive, handed to Indiana cities along the Ohio River, to separate sanitary from storm sewers. Where they converge, sewage can be flushed into public water supplies by heavy precipitation. Many of the underground lines were constructed when diluting effluent was considered an acceptable way to treat the overflow.
An area of concern now is piping carrying the city’s sewage to Tell City for treatment. From a road near the Patio Steak House to Cannelton’s sewer plant, Sewer Department Superintendent Jerry Ball explained, “it’s that ductile-iron pipe, and that’s not the right pipe to be carrying (sewage). If it stayed full all of the time, it’d be fine, but it doesn’t. It drains down and acid forms in the top of it and eats the top of that pipe.”
“When it was put in, that was the (federal Environmental Protection Agency’s) pipe of choice,” he added. “Now they want you to use a PVC pipe or polyethylene.”
Snyder said she didn’t feel comfortable incurring a $3.5 million debt to tackle all of the needed upgrades at once. She’s proposing a $500,000 Community Focus Fund grant that would require a 10-percent match from the city. A sewer-rate study would also be required, she said.
Councilman Jack Harris asked if the city was losing money because its sewer rates were too low.
The sewer department is operating within revenues but can’t fund large projects, according to Phillip Ball, utilities superintendent.
Monthly rates now charged, he said, are $4.59 per thousand gallons of water supplied to a home for the first 10,000 gallons. It would rise by $5.83, city attorney John Werner said.
“It’s an across-the-board 27-percent increase,’ he added, pointing out it comes to approximately a 2.5-percent increase over the 11 years since rates were last raised.
Councilwoman Kim Reed reminded the council a utility-rate hike of more than 30 percent was imposed several years ago after a similar period without increases.
“When you don’t raise it on a regular basis, the raises that come,” Werner said, “frankly, you’re catching up with the past.”
“This isn’t a project the city wants to do,” Phillip Ball added. “This is a project the state says you have to do.”
“And the federal government has imposed that upon the states,” Werner added.
According to Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor data, the average rate for customers of municipal sewer utilities using 5,000 gallons of water per month is $37.28, not including water or storm-water charges, an increase of approximately 20 percent over the last four years. That figure is based on municipal data from 2012 comparative water, sewer and storm-water rate studies conducted by H. J. Umbaugh and Associates.
Phillip Ball said 5,000 gallons per month is typical for city residents. Other rates are applied to car-wash and industrial users in the city.
Clerk-Treasurer Arvina Bozarth reminded the council that past attempts to secure funding failed because the city had not updated its rates.
“We were not building in for maintenance costs, and they felt like we needed to raise the rates,” she said.
Grant and loan applications are often awarded points in competitive processes, and that was an area “we got dinged on every time,” she said.
“It’s been that way for 20 years,” said Councilman Melvin McBrayer, also a former mayor of the city.
Snyder suggested the rate be set to cover current needs and a small-percentage increase be built in.
The council adopted a motion to authorize Werner to begin the process toward an increase, which he said would require a legal notice and at least one public hearing. Completion of a rate study would need to precede those.
Also needed are updated cost estimates and a preliminary plan from the Bernardin-Lochmueller and Associates engineering firm of Evansville, Held said. “It shouldn’t take them all that long,” he added. “They’ve been looking at this project for years now.”
The council also adopted a motion to seek the Community Focus Fund grant.