Compromise on the water rate hike

Bison Blinds

In the end, the citizens came, voiced concerns and experiences, and the board listened.

The great water hike rate debate of August 8, 2017, resulted in a water and sewer rate hike for the 250 residential and commercial accounts in the Town, but a rate less than what was proposed.

The Town of Luther put it in graphics first thing Wednesday morning.

Mr. Pittman speaks at the Town Board meeting. photo by Betty White

At the meeting, Arthur Pittman with Communities Unlimited explained his analysis of the current water and sewer rate in Luther.

Who is Mr. Pittman? He told the group that he retired from a long career with the federal government where he administered loans and grants. Now he works on the other side of that process with the non-profit helping Towns or rural water districts and like with getting funding. And what is the non-profit, Communities Unlimited? Here is verbiage from the group’s website:

As Communities Unlimited, our shared goal is to provide deep and lasting impact in communities by combining fundamental infrastructure services with economic entrepreneurial growth strategies.

We are unifying the building blocks needed to create vibrant and prosperous communities. Communities Unlimited serves seven southern states: Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama. This is an area that includes 60% of this country’s persistently poor counties, including large percentages of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

The mission of Communities Unlimited is to move rural and under-resourced communities in areas of persistent poverty to sustainable prosperity.

Mr. Pittman presented his findings that included a rate hike for water and sewer. He made the case that ultimately the water and sewer services do not “cash-flow,” in other words, they do not support themselves when the Town must pay for the debt service on a previous loan, payroll and operational expenses that costs $155,000 annually, reflecting a dismal income of $189. (according to 2016 Town audit).

REAP Grant points

The proposal in the agenda would have raised the rates not only to help with cash-flow but to put the Town in line to qualify for a REAP Grant through the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.  According to Vice Mayor and LPWA Board Liaison Jason Roach, the Town missed out on the grant last year by only three points. He explained showing a rate increase will help in the points process for this round. Why do they want the grant? The funding will help replace aging pipes, provide more required fire hydrants (which will lower home owners insurance rates) and other issues related to residents and businesses being able to, as Pittmann said, “turn on the faucet and have water come out or flush the toilet and have the stuff go away.”

McDaniels at the meeting. Photo by Betty White

It was clear that citizens who came to the meeting brought another perspective to the issue. Some talked about their erratic spikes in water rates; others complained about mis-reading of meters; some said they are on fixed incomes and couldn’t afford any hike. The issue brought three former trustees to the meeting, including Andy McDaniels who offered grant-writing assistance to the board. Although The FB Live braodcast was interrupted by technical difficulties (what a nightmare), here’s the part of the meeting with the citizens’ comments.

See more on Luther Register News Facebook Page. Portions of the meeting that didn’t make the broadcast due to connectivity issues will be recounted in another story.

Most agreed the water and sewer rate hike issue should be addressed, and are needed. No one knows for sure, but most think that the last rate hike was in the 1980s. There was a growing sense among the room that the problems run deeper than rate hikes and meters.  Mayor Jenni White said, “We are not in the business of hurting our residents.  But we have to do what is best based on the information we have,” she said. The information they had reflected much research, and Tuesday night, more citizen input.

The Board of Trustees. Photo by Betty White

Trustee Trandy Langston said she appreciated the input and noted that citizens who have communicated with Town Hall about their water bill are having their issues addressed. She called the vote a “great compromise.” All five trustees voted yes.

The public comments about the rate hike were near the beginning of the meeting, after the Pledge of Allegiance and the invocation offered by First Christian Church Pastor Johnny Melton. But the board vote happened about three hours later after members worked through a 34 item agenda.

The former Trustee McDaniels and others at the meeting offered the trustees help with their experience in grant writing, research and shared perspective from simply living in the Town for a long time. McDaniels said, “One thing we have in common is we all love our Town. We love Luther. We just need to work on working together and we’ll finally get stuff done.”

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