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City’s financial woes

Council to consider fee increases, have forum

Ironton City Council is considering a number of raises in fees, because it is either that or cutting services. And they want to have a meeting with the public before they vote on any measures.

The council had a meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee on Wednesday to discuss the matter. Then they had a meeting of the Public Utilities Committee on Thursday and, as part of the items discussed, was setting up a public forum to let citizens know exactly what the financial situation is for the city.

A date for the public meeting hasn’t been set yet, because council members are trying to find a day that doesn’t conflict with the Thanksgiving holiday that all seven council members and city officials can attend.

Ironton Mayor Katrina Keith said that she definitely wants to hear from the citizens of Ironton on the matter of fees, adding that she would like to have a meeting at Ohio University’s Bowman Auditorium and explain the entire situation.

“They have to have a say so,” she said. “We are their leaders, they have chosen us to do this, but they also have a voice in this.”

The fee increases are under debate by the Strategic Planning Committee and have not been presented to the full council yet.

Water rates would be $9.50 per thousand gallons and go up to $9.74 in 2023.

One is increasing the sanitation fee to $11.50 beginning in January and over the next five years raising it to $12.45 in 2023.

The monthly stormwater fee would be $12.50 per month starting in January and go up to $22.50 in 2023.

The flood prevention fee would be $5 in January and go up to $15 by 2023.

A new fee would be a police safety fee, which would be $15 in January and go up to $30 in 2023. Another new fee would be a monthly fire fee, which would be $15 in  January and go up to $30 in 2023.

Currently, the utility bill for Ironton residents is approximately $102.86, based on 4,000 gallons of water used monthly. There are 4,483 water taps in the city.

Under the proposed rates, the estimated average utility rate in 2019 would be $133 a month. In 2020, it would be $147.71. In 2021, it would be $161.42. In 2022, it would be $175.72. In 2023, it would be $190.02.

Another issue an ordinance would go into is that city utility and the property owner, rather than the renter, would pay city service fees.

The issue that the city has been facing is delinquent water and other utility bills caused by renters not paying the bill. Council member Nate Kline said the figure was $1.7 million over the last 20 years.

“We’re doing everything we can to get that under control,” he said.

Councilman Jim Tordiff, who was there when the city’s municipal fee was passed and would raise $875,000 a year, said it was assumed that it would take care of the city’s problem for years.

“But it hasn’t. That gets absorbed really quickly when you have 14 percent insurance increases, periodical raises to the employees. And not to mention that inflationary costs of gasoline and other operating expenses,” he said, adding that he hoped the auditorium at OUS will be jam packed with citizens to discuss the city’s financial situation.

“Where it stands, I am willing to pay $30 more a month to keep a full-time fire department,” he said.

In good news for people 65 and older who are permanently disabled, if they get certificate of reduction of real estate taxes from the county auditor, commonly known as a homestead exemption, they will be charged 25 percent less on their monthly utility bills. The program would apply one to a person’s permanent residence.

Council members agree that they don’t want to raise rates on anything but there is no choice, the city has to have money to operate.

Keith said it doesn’t matter if a city is poor; they still have to produce services like water and sewage treatment.

“Am I disappointed that we waited this long to do anything and we are at rock bottom and we have to throat punch the citizens with all of these fees at one time?” she asked. “Yes. And that stinks and is terrible and I hope we never have to do this again. But you have to have some kind of increases to go anywhere. We simply do not have the funds.”

The city has several issues including the wastewater plant that is antiquated with no backups and no redundancies. Keith said they are looking at the same situation at the water treatment plant is something isn’t done soon. She said that it would take about $600,000 to renovate the plant to keep it up and maintained.

Councilman Chuck O’Leary said what needs to be done is to get an economic development person working exclusively for the city.

I’ve said it a hundred times, you can’t tax and fee your way out of this financial situation,” he said. “I see where you’re coming from, (these fees) will put us into the black, but it is going to put everyone else into the red.”

He said he knew that heavy industry was never coming back to Ironton.

“The major metropolitan areas have much more to offer than us,” he said.

Kline said that by the proposal of moving fire and police to their own funds, it would open up money in the city’s general fund and that money could be used towards economic development.

Vice Mayor Rich Blankenship said that he does not want to see cuts to the city services because when he was mayor, he toured towns that had cut services and talked to the city administrations.

“At the end of the day when you start that, you are on a slippery slope on the way down,” he said.