Mayor to council members: You could have asked more questions

Published 9:50 am Thursday, September 2, 2010

Though the Ironton City Council passed an ordinance last week to start the loan process on a new water meter project for the city, not everyone was pleased with the vote.

Mayor Rich Blankenship is disappointed that three council members voted against the project. He said those council members did not express their questions and concerns prior to the vote.

“I know it passed but those three that voted no could have asked a lot of questions in the last year,” Blankenship said. “We have spent a lot of time and we’ve tried to get up there and explain to them and those questions were never presented to council.”

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Bob Cleary, who voted against the measure, said he wasn’t given a chance to discuss the ordinance at last week’s meeting.

“They didn’t have any discussion before it was voted on – none- but it passed regardless. I think it’s kind of my right to vote how I want to,” Cleary said when reached Wednesday. “Why is all this about me and the Mayor? Why didn’t he catch me after the meeting? It’s two-way communication. I feel like me and the mayor have a good relationship.”

The ordinance authorized the city to start the loan process on the $1.4 million project to replace the city’s water meters with electronic ones. Thirty percent of the project would be paid for with a forgivable loan from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The rest would be paid back with funds generated from the storm water, water and sewage funds over the next 30 years with 2 percent interest.

Councilmen Dave Frazer and Cleary along with Councilwoman Beth Rist voted against the measure, which passed with a 4-3 vote. Councilmen Kevin Waldo, Mike Lutz, Chuck O’Leary and Frank Murphy voted for the ordinance.

Frazer has publicly questioned whether the project would mean increases in the city’s water rates and wants to know if the city plans to decrease the water rates if it saves money with the new meters.

As it is, residents are paying too much for utilities, Frazer said Monday.

“It’s not the water rates. It’s what you get when you add everything together,” Frazer said, referring to the city’s municipal fee and other fees that are on the water bill.

He added that he is concerned with the amount of debt that the city would be taking on with the project.

“All I was interested in knowing is, if they have that extra money, how would it be given back to the people or if they could pay the loan earlier, I don’t know,” Frazer said.

Cleary questioned Wednesday the legality of the using the water, wastewater and storm water enterprise funds to pay back the loans.

“It sounds all good and great on the surface but I just have concerns about how it’s going to be paid back,” he said.

The city has argued that the water meters are used to determine the cost of storm water, wastewater and water to residents, so it’s legal to use the enterprise funds from all of the departments to pay for the loan.

“I’ve never seen anything from the state auditor that says you can take money out of local enterprise funds,” Cleary said, adding that the city attorney has said that it would be legal. “I don’t know if their opinion always holds up.”

If the city were to pay back the loan using only funds from the water rates, it would have to raise the rates, Cleary said.

Blankenship has said that he does not anticipate water rates increasing, besides a $.30 scheduled increase already set for January.

“That’s a step up,” The mayor said of the scheduled increase. “Your chemicals raise every year and it takes a lot to produce water.”

Cleary questioned the need to replace all the meters but said he would support a pilot program to put the meters in outlying areas of the city as well as in every business and municipal building.

“They think it will increase revenue by 5 percent,” Cleary said, questioning what would happen if the current meters were over reading and the new meters actually decreased revenue. “I think the bottom line is that I don’t have the comfort level that Ironton needs to go into debt to replace all the water meters in this town.”

Cleary also questioned to The Tribune as to whether the city would lay off workers from the water distribution department once the water meters were installed.

Blankenship says no.

“That’s totally off base in my opinion,” he said. “No we don’t have to lay off.”

Blankenship added that even though it would take less time to read meters, the water distribution workers would still be needed to fix leaks and other things throughout the city.

Blankenship said he would be glad to set up a time where a water meter company can come meet with council and explain it to them. The council could also set up a time to go to Portsmouth and see the electronic meters in action, he suggested.

“I’m sure we can set it up,” he said. “I can only go so far in explaining.”

Frazer said he would be interested in seeing the meters.

“I see the need for it,” Frazer said of the meters. “I just don’t see paying a 30-year loan. We’re barely making it now.”

Cleary said he’d be interested in seeing the meters as well.

“I probably wouldn’t go to Portsmouth. If someone came and had a demonstration that would be fine,” he said.

The mayor also questioned why Rist changed her mind about the project. According to minutes from the July 22 council meeting, Rist stated that she supported the project, but she voted against it Thursday evening.

“She publicly stated a month a go, or whenever, that she supported it and now we don’t need it? Why don’t we need it? Computer problems?” Blankenship asked.

Rist had told The Tribune last week after the meeting that while the electronic meters may cut down on human error, they could have software issues.

Blankenship said businesses that are interested in developing or locating in Ironton look at the city’s infrastructure.

“We have to make improvements to our infrastructure – it’s an absolute must and that’s what we’re doing,” the mayor said. “It’s not going to happen overnight but if you sit back and say ‘we don’t want to,” it’s just going to get worse.”

Calls to Rist were not returned.