Winona falls behind on gas bill, water maintenance

Published on Wednesday, 16 April 2014 23:24 - Written by FAITH HARPER

WINONA — Residents in Winona will see increases in their monthly utility bills, but the increases will not address an outstanding balance on the city’s gas bill.

Mayor Rusty Smith said the city did not pay its gas bill to Eagle Rock Energies for six nonconsecutive months in 2013. He said the city paid back all of the 2013 funds but is still roughly $160,000 behind for January and February of this year. The oversight was caught in January and the city employee responsible has since resigned.

In addition to the outstanding gas tab, the city also is behind on regular maintenance of its gas and water systems as well as out of compliance with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the mayor said.

At its council meeting Tuesday, council members discussed a variety of ways to tighten its belt, but official budget hearings will not begin until after the May election.

The council voted unanimously to publish its intent to issue certificates of obligation not to exceed $350,000 but did not hammer down which projects it wished to complete with the funds.

Proposals include updating the city’s wastewater system to TCEQ standards, dredging wastewater ponds, capping three wells, adding or replacing meters at two commercial properties and installing a water new line, among others.

The council voted unanimously to increase water, sewer and gas rates within the city, although each expressed displeasure in having to do so. It’s the first rate increase in seven years, according to the city.

Smith said the increases would be used to fund the payments on the certificates of obligation and conduct some general maintenance that was ignored. The changes are estimated to bring in an additional $132,000 a year, he said.

Smith said the rate increase was a better option than raising taxes because the increase is based on consumption.

“You can reduce your consumption and reduce the amount you have to spend unlike taxes where there is nothing you can do and you have to pay that (amount) because is not consumption based…” he said. “Over the two, I’d rather see a utility rate increase over a tax increase any day of the week.”

Price increases will go into effect in May.

The largest increase will be on gas bills. The meter fee increased nearly $5 from $10.08 inside the city limits to $15, with each cubic foot of gas increasing from $4.32 to $6.32.

Gas customers outside the city will pay more, with $15 meter fee and $5.32 per cubic foot of gas.

The base water rate for residents will go up $2 a month from $18 to $20. The base rate includes the first 2,000 gallons of water consumption, and each additional 1,000 gallons increased $1 from 2.50 to $3.50.

The base sewer rate also is going up by $2 from $15 for the first 2,000 gallons to $17. Each additional 1,000 gallons is going up from $1.25 to $1.50.

The city is working with Eagle Rock Energies on a plan to catch back up, but nothing is set.

“I’m hoping they are willing to work with us and willing to work out a payment plan with us, but we are still in talks with them on that past due balance,” Smith said.

Residents are not in danger of getting their service turned off, he said.

The council discussed a few belt-tightening options at the meeting, but did not vote on any of them.

They discussed terminating an agreement with Winona ISD for a shared School Resource officer. The officer works at the district during the school year and with the city in the summertime. The district pay for 75 percent of his salary, and the city foots the other 25 percent.

They also looked at possible hiring freezes and cutting cost of living pay increases.

Alderman Earl Brown said the council would have to make some unpopular decisions to get out of its current financial mess.

“We have spent money we didn’t have, and when you get to that point you have to make some cuts,” Brown said. “I think the school can get a capable person to work at the school. We as a city we have to take full responsibility of that, and we a council have to look at areas where can make cuts.”

Alderman Tommy Brock said cutting safety at the school was an unacceptable cut.

“I know it’s not the most popular thing to do …” Brown said. “You throw in the safety of our children and if they need someone there, Smith County is capable of handling that position. I feel like we need to look at the option.”

Smith said personnel were “low hanging fruit” for budget cuts. He said the city already has three positions open and is running on bare bones.

“The hard part is digging in the actual numbers and seeing where we can cut spending inside that nest of numbers — that’s the hard part,” he said. “No one wants to do that. They want to do the easy part and cut salaries, but it’s not going to fix anything.”