City leaders address water concerns

INDEPENDENCE – A discussion on Facebook led Independence city leaders to hold an impromptu community meeting about the city’s water and sewer rates on Thursday.

About 25 people packed into a room to hear about the water system and how rates are set.

“I know we’re responding to what people perceive as high water and sewer rates,” City Manager David Clyne said. According to a survey of cities, Independence’s rates are in the middle. Compared to neighboring Dallas and Monmouth, rates are high.

Clyne said those rates differ depending on the needs and resources available to each community, including how water is available, such as whether it’s gravity fed or pumped from a well.

“I also had the opportunity to speak with our rate consultant … and verify with him where we stood on a statewide average,” Clyne said. “He still believes we fall pretty much in the middle of the pack.”

Clyne noted that a gallon of tap water in Independence cost about 1 cent, whereas bottled water costs an average $1.79 per gallon.

Citizens were upset that they have to pay a water bill, even if the property is empty. Some spent winters in warmer climates, such as Arizona, and are billed for water in spite of not using the service.

Public Works Supervisor Ken Perkins said some costs are constant and must be spread out between all users of the system. One such cost is daily testing for bacteria, chlorine and fluoride.

“There are multiple things we test for, and it’s very expensive,” Perkins said. “There’s a full gamut of why and what you have to test.”

Others were angry that roughly 10 percent of their water bill went to pay the debt incurred by building Monmouth Independence Networks. A woman asked why water rates paid for cable, phone and data – nothing to do with water.

Clyne said the water fund was put up for collateral for state bonds in 2004 by city leaders to build the system.

“There was a perception in the community that we would not have data services that this community wanted and deserved,” he said. “The leadership at the time was not satisfied, so they decided to build this fiber system. To make that happen, you had to finance the business.”

The city prides itself on transparency, and all of this information is online, Clyne said.

One lady said the city was not transparent at all, and should include more information in a line-item format on the bill about how money collected for sewer and water is spent. She went on to criticize the city for not including information about public meetings in the city’s monthly newsletter, specifically the joint city council meeting scheduled for May 31 at 7 p.m. at Polk County Fire District No. 1 Central Station, 1800 Monmouth Ave., Independence.

Another agreed.

“One of the big issues is when you start tacking stuff on to the water and sewer bill and people don’t have visibility to it,” she said. “Minet doesn’t show up here. What other things are being tacked on the bill that don’t show up here. It would be nice to have a conversation before being sold a bag of coal. I’m sure they fed you this big line and you fell for it like a timeshare.”

Clyne said the water rates would continue to go up, but he hoped at a slow, steady pace. He said one of the problems was during a time when the council did not increase rates at all, creating a need for big jumps to get caught up.

“At the end of the day, where we go will be going will be dictated to us,” he said. “As we grow, we gather new regulations. The federal government is not lightening regulations, and every time you have a Flint, Mich., you get more requirements and regulations.”

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