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Rowdy crowd weighs in on water rate hike

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Orchard City's base water charges for residential water customers with three-quarter-inch taps were revised for the second time in a month at the town board's April 12 meeting. The latest rates corrected a math problem with the rates adopted last month.

The monthly base charges will rise on May 1 to $16.25 per month in-town and $21.25 per month outside of town. The monthly base charges both represent a 25 percent hike.

In addition, Orchard City's water usage rates have in many cases more than doubled. Water usage rates for in-town residential customers will be billed at $1.89 per thousand gallons for the first 20,000 gallons. Water usage rates for outside-of-town residential customers will be billed at $2.20 per thousand gallons for the first 10,000 gallons. The complete, six-page-long town water charge and rate schedule is available from town hall.

There is also an additional $5 per month charge for future water system construction. Town officials project annual increases in charges and rates going forward.

The revised monthly base charges and usage rates were adopted by town trustees following a highly animated town board meeting on April 12 that saw an audience of some two dozen people bursting into applause as town water customers had open arguments with town board members over the rates issue. At one point there was a call for law enforcement assistance.

Among those addressing trustees on the issues was Marty Jacobs. She said she had been "very concerned" about the original increase in rates, but noted the revised rates are "not so drastic." She asked if the town has "sufficient water" to serve customers, because the 30,000 gallon "minimum" was dropped to 20,000 gallons.

Mayor Ken Volgamore replied that the treatment plant "has been getting close to capacity." (Trustees had previously stated the town water plant actually hit the 80 percent-of-capacity threshold that triggers required planning for expansion.) Otherwise, the town's treatable raw water supplies have not been reported as insufficient.

EJ Verdahl told trustees "The rate increase is ridiculous." She blamed trustees for "springing the hikes on people who are just starting to put in gardens."

Verdahl told trustees that they were elected to represent residents, "not your own greedy water business." Senior citizens don't get any raises in their fixed incomes, she stated.

"A small increase would be okay, but You are stealing from us by raising rates. Stop and think about it. Do your math before you publicize it."

Trustee Dick Kirkpatrick invited Verdahl to attend the town's board's monthly work sessions and meetings.

Carol Keller said she agreed with Verdahl. She appealed to the trustees to hold open forums with residents on the issue and re-examine their move. Volgamore noted that the water increase has gotten wide publicity including a town mass mailing to water customers and said, "we've done enough." Keller replied "I don't agree with your decision."

Doug Keller objected to the way that rates "were pushed through." His question about what the board's $2 million water reserve fund would be used for opened an exchange about the nature of the Orchard City water system. Trustees explained that the 65 miles of pipe is on average 30 to 40 years old; some parts are much older. Water fund reserves are needed to self insure against catastrophic failure. Trustee Bob Eckels explained "the $2 million in reserves is to ensure the delivery of water."

In an exchange that illustrated the vast different in views on the rate hike issue, Trustee Dick Kirkpatrick said the town water fund lost $72,000 last year. Keller challenged that and presented numbers from the town's own budgets showing a $116,000 profit in the water fund. Keller also told trustees that if the system quit leaking so much water the town would have the money it needs for its reserve fund.

Volgamore tried to cut Keller off, saying his three minutes of time to speak had expired. Keller asked for others to yield their time to him and some did. Trustee Tom Huerkamp injected that Keller was taking control of the meeting which is "against the law." Keller replied, "Bring in the sheriff. I have a right to speak!"

Volgamore instructed the town administrator to call the sheriff and in a few minutes two uniformed deputies arrived and entered the meeting room without further incident.

Angela Heber asked the trustees why they waited just until spring to raise water rates when the heavy usage period was starting. (The last time Orchard City raised water rates usage dropped as a result and money flowing into the water fund declined sharply.) Volgamore replied to Heber saying information about the coming increase "has been out there."

The town board in February had conducted a well-attended public workshop on sources of revenue for the town including new taxes, allowing marijuana business, and increasing water rates and charges. The public favored raising water rates and charges, but there was no mention by town officials at the time of what the higher rates might be.

Mike Morgan said the town's original increase proposal had been "excessive."

Jan Gage told the town board, "You need to try and involve the public more." Huerkamp replied that "the public only reacts when they are mad" which was one of the comments that evening which drew loud applause.

Perry Salisbury noted that people are paying more now for all their needs. "Why not vote?" he asked. Then, waiting for applause to subside, he added, "We the people need to have more input," and applause welled up once again.

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