Hillsboro City Council on Monday will consider increasing the base fee on residents’ water bills by $3 in order to fund water system repairs and improvements.
At a joint meeting Thursday evening, city council’s Utilities Committee and Finance Committee voted to bring the appropriate legislation to council for a vote at its next meeting, which will be held Monday at 7 p.m.
The current base fee was frozen at $9.08 in 2013, according to Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Mel McKenzie. The increase would bring the fee to $12.08 across the board if the legislation is passed, McKenzie said.
The base fee on residents’ sewer bill, which is $28.02, will not change, McKenzie told The Times-Gazette.
At the joint committee meeting, members heard from City of Hillsboro Administrative Assistant and Grant Writer Kirby Ellison, Hillsboro Water Treatment Plant Superintendent Jason Bernard and Hillsboro Public Works Superintendent Shawn Adkins about upcoming infrastructure projects, such as water main replacement and new catwalks for city reservoirs that will require extra funding.
Ellison outlined a number of low-interest loans offered by state agencies to pay for the projects, but said the Water Fund does not have enough money to pay them back.
Utilities Committee Chairman Brandon Leeth, who called the meeting, said a water fee is “something I’d like to see.”
During discussion, Utilities Committee members Adam Wilkin and Wendy Culbreath said adding $5 to the base fee is an appropriate amount.
“That’s a milkshake less a month,” Wilkin said.
Leeth, McKenzie, Finance Committee Chairman Justin Harsha and finance member Mary Stanforth said approving a $3 fee with the possibility of incremental increases in the future may be a better course of action. The committees later agreed on the $3 increase.
The base fee is a flat rate paid for water and sewer usage, McKenzie told The Times-Gazette.
As previously reported, Hillsboro residents have enjoyed permanent relief from the final three years of scheduled water and sewer rate increases that council approved in 2008.
Beginning in 2014, city council voted each year to place a moratorium for the final three years on rate hikes that were scheduled as part of the financing of the wastewater treatment plant.
The reason for the moratorium was an influx of federal stimulus funds and other funding available from the Ohio Public Works Commission the city had not yet utilized, which allowed some relief from some of the financial burden on city residents. The moratorium was recommended by the Hastings administration and the Utilities Committee at the time.
Hillsboro Law Director Fred Beery said on Friday that if the incremental increases had stayed in place, “We probably wouldn’t need the (fee) increase we’re considering now.”
But, he added, the city at the time “didn’t want to take money before they needed it.”
Ellison said during Thursday’s meeting that the fee increase represents less of a financial burden than if the incremental increases had stayed in place.
The revenue from the fees, which can only be used for the city’s water system, will be put toward paying back two low-interest loans available from the state that the city is set to apply for next year, Ellison said.
The first priority, a $244,000 loan with a 20-year term, will finance new catwalks at the city’s two reservoirs.
According to Leeth, only one of the city’s two reservoirs has a catwalk for accessing water valves at various levels of the reservoir. That catwalk is dilapidated, Leeth said, and presents a possible liability.
Meanwhile, the city’s newer reservoir at Liberty Park has no catwalk, and crews have had to use a boat to access the valves, Bernard said.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources requires all the valves to be “exercised” at least once a year, and crews occasionally have to access the valves at other times to draw water from different levels, Bernard said.
The other loan, which is $1.25 million with a 30-year term, will pay for water main replacement throughout the city, Ellison said.
Ellison said much of the city’s water system is more than 50 years old, and leaks have been causing city crews headaches throughout the winter.
According to Adkins, the city has repaired more than 20 water line breaks since Jan. 1, and Ellison said each leak costs roughly $2,500 to repair.
Councilwoman Wendy Culbreath suggested the Water Department look into more modern methods for water system repairs to save money and eliminate the need to dig up city streets. Culbreath said she had researched a number of firms that offer such services at a low rate.
McKenzie said such methods are “definitely worth a look.”
Adkins said new regulations from the Ohio EPA require the city to put plans in place to fund infrastructure replacement projects over the next several years, and Bernard said his department is “just scratching the surface” of that issue.
Also included in new Ohio EPA mandates is lead line replacement, Adkins said. While the city is in compliance with the Ohio EPA’s regulations, there is still some lead in the city’s water lines that will have to be replaced over the next few years, he said.
Adkins said most of the lead is concentrated in the oldest portions of the city’s water system, which will have to be replaced anyway.
The city is also considering a $1.2 million loan to pay for new storm sewers for the city, although the revenue from the water fee increase cannot be used to pay it back.
According to Adkins, the city currently has $70,000 available for the loan, but more funding will have to be identified to pay it back.
One option, according to McKenzie, is a program being developed by Stantec, an engineering firm, that would charge large property owners for rain water runoff.
According to McKenzie, due to a lack of storm sewer lines in the city, the wastewater treatment plant is treating far more clean rain water than it should.
McKenzie expressed concern that the Ohio EPA could inspect the plant and say it needs to expand to handle the flow, even though a percentage of the material being treated is not sewage.
Adkins said quite a few old homes in Hillsboro have drains and sump pumps that drain straight into the sanitary sewer, causing further rain water to flow to the wastewater treatment plant.
Also Thursday, the committees voted to bring council legislation approving application for a 20-year, $600,000 loan to finance a new sludge press at the wastewater treatment plant. Ellison said the funds for that project are available.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.