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After an hour-long public hearing Tuesday night in which city officials were challenged to stand up to "bullying tactics" by the federal government, Decatur City Council unanimously passed a 50 percent sewer rate increase which will go into effect with the next billing cycle.
Rates initially will rise 37 percent, then another 4 percent a year later; then, probably, another 7 percent in the third year of a three-phase project, Meanwhile, the city will float a $3 million bond issue.
The rate increase and bond funds are designed to accomplish the following:
1. Fund the city sewage department, which has been spending more than it's taking in due to rates said below normal and has had to borrow money from the water department. It has already borrowed some $225,000, which the higher rates will help to pay off over a period of time.
2. Meet mandates from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to further reduce Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in the city.
3. Provide for extending some sewer lines to areas near residents just outside the city limits who have been mandated by the county to get rid of their septic tanks. Those who decide to go with the city — it's not mandatory — will pay a surcharge in addition to their monthly city bills once connected.
The rate increase will be the first since 2008.
The projected increase is expected to mean an additional $40 or so a month for the average user. It could be around $10 for minimum users.
John Scomp, representing Crowe Horwath, a financial consulting firm handling the funding plans for the city, was on hand last night to give a brief summary of what lies ahead, what will be accomplished, etc.
The city is establishing a three-phase project in order to prevent an even larger immediate increase in sewage rates. (No other rates, such as water, are affected.). Scomp and Mayor John Schultz said several times that if, at the end of two years or so the project's costs are less than first thought, city council could reduce sewage rates.
Asked at one point by Greg Engle of Decatur why the term "50 percent" was used when the three increases don't add up to 50, Scomp said, "It's a compound thing."
Basically, CSO is a term used to describe how a heavy rain in a short period of time causes storm water mixed with sanitary water flowing to the sewage treatment plant to overflow the system and go into the St. Marys River. It happens infrequently — maybe four or five times a year, the mayor said — and while the city has made great reductions in CSOs over the years, IDEM is demanding more.
The city is expected to build two, maybe three, more large blue tanks like the one off Jackson St. near Lytle's barbershop, at about $1 million each. The overflows would go into those tanks, as some already do into the original tank.
The vote for final passage was unanimous, 4-0, with Councilman Bill Crone absent.