If you believe in the power of prayer, then put the success of Greenfield ethanol plant and reduction of inflation rate on your list for divine intervention.
At their meeting Tuesday night, Winnebago City Council got an earful from a handful of residents following the aftershock of the recent utility hikes.
Mayor Scott Robertson says rates needed to be increased because the water fund is $212,000 in the hole and sewer fund is $511,788 in the red.
“The sewer fund is definitely linked to Corn Plus closing, no doubt,” says Robertson. “It took $900,000 out of the fund.”
As a result, the monthly residential sewer fee was raised from $15 to 45, as well as the water rates.
However, water rates will be based on actual gallon usage rather than the tier-pricing system that has been used for the past two decades and charged a set minimum.
Councilman Calvin Howard says two years ago following an audit it was recommended rates should be increased 10 percent. However, the council decided on 5 percent.
“We’ve been trying to raise rates in a responsible way. This is not a catch-up or trying to make up for lost ground. This is probably what they should have been for three years,” says Howard.
Robertson read a letter from Elise Nielsen, who was in attendance and is employed at Homestead Realty.
The tremendous rate hikes are unfair to those on a tight budget, says Nielsen, pointing out that the city’s utility bill is more than her heating and electric bills combined.
Nielsen says in March 2021 her utility bill was $92, that compares to nearly $160 this past March.
“I have noticed since this rate went into effect, many homebuyers are looking East and West. People want to live where they can afford to live,” she says.
Jim Ness, co-owner of Homestead Realty, says the increases could not have come at a worse time and the city should have done a better job informing residents.
City Administrator Judi Hynes says flyers were distributed to businesses in town and also available at City Hall, Post Office and library.
“I don’t want to be rude about this, but why didn’t you put one those with a bill in an envelope and mail it?” says Ness. “People were shocked. The animosity toward City Hall is huge because they didn’t know it was happening. Don’t leave the public out of it.”
Robertson took issue with the notion that city officials didn’t try to warn and prepare residents.
“As long as some are tossing grenades up here, I am going to toss them back,” says Robertson. “When is the last time you got a letter from the county telling you your taxes are going up? A letter from BENCO that the rates are changing? From CenterPoint? We’re not trying to fleece anybody.”
Although costly, Howard says the city should consider whether notices regarding rates changes should be mailed out in the future.
Councilman Paul Eisenmenger says he understands how residents have been affected because his bill has gone from about $130 to $214.
The Rural Water Association conducted an independent analysis and recommended what the rates should be, says Eisenmenger, and inflation has increased operating costs for the water and wastewater facilities.
“I think honestly, if we had to go back and refigure, the numbers (rate increases) would be even higher,” he says, adding that the electric bill last month for both plants was $4,500.
City officials are banking on Greenfield discharging more water into the wastewater facility which will add revenue to the sewer fund.
“And, if the prices of materials to treat the water goes down, there’s a real good chance the utility rates could go down. Every year we look at the rates,” says Eisenmenger.
Howard is optimistic that the ethanol plant back up and running will have a positive impact.
“I’m hoping we can lower it (sewer rate) or at the very least not raise it for a number of years,” he says.