Bessemer City council hears public discussion on sewer rate increases
BESSEMER — The Bessemer City Council chamber was filled with about a dozen members of the public on Monday evening, with public comment focused on sewer rate increases for the city customers.
“This area here is depressed as it is and then you’re going to slap on all these fees on people,” said one concerned citizen. “There’s nobody that’s on fixed incomes that can afford that.”
According to city manager Mike Uskiewicz, there is $5,265,000 in grants available to repair the sewer. “The remaining 3 million is a poverty rate interest loan,” he said.
He said what the city was asking to an increase to readiness to serve sewer charges of $4.25 per month and a $2.75 increase to water use, per 1,000 gallons.
“So, in total, you’re looking at a $7 per month increase to cover the $3 million,” Uskiewicz said. “This is a required increase to cover the loan. The grant we’ve locked in, the loan portion needs to be funded as well, because as we’ve identified, there is an extreme, severe amount of needs that need to be accomplished with the water sewer and infrastructure. This will take on a major portion of our town.”
Councilwoman Linda Nelson said an average person uses about 3,000 gallons per month, which would be a $12.50 increase per month. “For a family of four, the average is 6,000,” Nelson said. “Which would mean a $20.75 increase per month.”
“That would be $248 a year,” said councilman Al Gaiss. “...The question I have is what are we getting for the extra $248? We’re getting millions, aren’t we..?” Uskiewicz agreed.
“We’re probably going to get a lot more vacant houses, is what we’re going to get,” Nelson said. “When people cannot afford an additional $50-60 per month for their water/sewer bill.”
“We have a consent order against us on the sewer. We have to do something as a municipality,” Uskiewicz said. “Some of that cost has to be borne by the residents.”
John Frello, a member of the Downtown Development Authority, said “The biggest complaint of this town ... are the roads. The infrastructure in this town, the pipes underground, are aging. … Surrounding communities have had issues much worse than we have in the wintertime, with regards to breakage. We’re not too far behind unless something’s done.”
“So the point is, is that the council has two choices. One, to take advantage of the opportunities with the low loan grant, which they did choose to do, or we could have just let it go ... “ Frello said. “Yes, it’s a lot of money and yes, it’s going to be difficult for citizens in this town, or at least a number of them, to be able to pay, but the point is what do we do? What’s the alternative?” he questioned. “Do we bring this up to standard where this needs to be, get the majority of the roads repaved by putting in new pipes underneath, or do we all let it go to Hell? Yes it’s going to cost, but to me that’s a better alternative to letting it go to Hell.”
Another citizen voiced his opinion about the affected areas of town. He said when a sewer was replaced 10-12 years ago where he lives, those citizens paid a surcharge about 4 years prior to the work to cover the costs. He said the new work does not affect that area.
“Having the right foundation, sitting underneath our streets, … sidewalks, … downtown area, … (will help to) create an environment that will make it friendly for people to do business here,” Whitburn said. “I understand the sewer/water rate increases, I can see the hardship it’s going to create, however, on the other side, if we don’t influx the right dollars into repairing that infrastructure if it is so old, and repairing these roads ... why would (a business or family) want to come here instead of somewhere else?”
“I believe that it’s in our best interest to make sure that we take care of this infrastructure to take care of the roads, but we also must learn to do a better job of communicating this information to our citizens of Bessemer,” she said.
Whitburn, as with many others who had public comment Monday, were especially concerned with the older population who already live on low and fixed incomes, and how they will be able to afford the rate increases and how they are getting informed.
One man said they can’t afford coffee dates or senior meals, so they will not be able to afford rate increases. “There’s a lot of people in this town that have just not got the money to do it. They’re flat broke now, and they don’t know where they’re going to get the money from,” he said. “...If you send letters to these people that’s not going to help them pay their bills.”
Mayor Butch Semmerling said most of these rate increases are looked at by other agenies, such as Rural Development and the DEQ, so they need to be addressed by the city. “If we do nothing, nothing gets done,” he said.
After the lengthy discussion, with opposition from Nelson, the council voted to approve the sewer rate increases.
The council also passed two resolutions.
Resolution No. 2013-18 supported the state’s Proposal 1 for Safer Roads which will be on the May 5 ballot. Gaiss encouraged the public to read up on all the bills included in the proposal before voting.
Resolution No. 2013-19 repeals resolution No. 226, from Aug. 17, 1987. With no opposition, the new resolution passed dissolves “the city of Bessemer’s membership and participation in the Gogebic Range Solid Waste Management Authority.”
In other business, the council:
—was thanked by a representative of Eagle Waste. The representative said, “I just wanted to let everyone here know that Eagle Waste, two weeks ago, got an award from the state of Wisconsin for the outstanding contribution to recycling for 2014, and it’s because of the partnerships with all of the cities and customers we have. I want to thank everyone because you’re all a part of that award with us.”
—approved a second amendment to the service agreement with the Bessemer Area Sewer Authority.
—tabled the purchase of a street sweeper for the city, with opposition from Nelson. A signed letter from the city workers asked for a new street sweeper to replace the current 1982 model and said they did not need an excavator, as has been discussed in the past. Uskiewicz said, “I’m still in the process of looking at the options.”
—heard some of the city manager’s report. Uskiewicz said the Department of Natural Resources approved the playground equipment, so it will be ordered this week. The total cost is $25,615, but he said the DNR will reimburse 100 percent of the cost.
Also, the DNR is interested in stocking the pond at Bluff Valley with blue gills. In his report, Uskiewicz said Roger Grayal, a former resident who now works at Lake Superior State University tested the pond. “Mr. Grayal has tested the pond and stated the pond has excellent oxygen readings and would be an excellent fishing pond.”