ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The average Hillsboro household can expect to pay the city around $5 more a month for sewer service starting Sept. 1.
The Hillsboro City Council passed an ordinance at its June 19 meeting to authorize the increase, which comes in two parts.
First, the ordinance raises the basic user fee from $13.75 a month to $16.75 for all customers. Money generated from this increase will go toward sewer-plant improvements mandated by the state.
Second, a slightly higher variable rate will be added to the bill based on the amount of water a household or business uses. This increase will cover increases in the cost of producing the water the city generates.
Customers using under 20,000 gallons will pay 80 cents per 1,000 gallons. Those using between 20,000 and 99,999 will pay 76 cents per 1,000 gallons, and those using 100,000 gallons or more will pay 74 cents per 1,000 gallons.
The amount of water used for billing purposes will be determined by averaging the amount of water used from December through March. The average will be computed in April of each year and then be applied beginning with the May billing.
To illustrate the impact of the increase on different types of customers in town, City Administrator Steven Garrett drew upon members of the council.
According to his calculations, Mayor Delores Dalke would have seen an increase of $5.86 at her residence under the new structure, while Council President Mike Padgett would have paid $5.78 more at his.
Councilor Wendell Dirks would have seen an increase of $5.87 at his Circle D manufacturing plant, while Councilor Matt Hiebert would have paid only $3.54 more at his downtown plumbing business.
Hillsboro High School would have paid $6.43 more while Tabor College, with its many on-campus residents, would have seen its monthly bill increase by $28.31.
“It’s never fun to raise rates,” Padgett said, “but we’re going to have to.”
In a related item, Garrett reported that the sewer outfall line project will not begin until July 9. Bad weather in other areas had put the contractor behind schedule.
Meanwhile, faced with the possibility of being sued by Hoch Publishing, the council voted to reinstate the Hillsboro Star-Journal as the city’s official newspaper.
In May, the council had chosen the Hillsboro Free Press Digest as its official newspaper based on cost and service. But Hoch Publishing, which owns the Star-Journal, said the Digest, with 15 paid subscribers at the time, did not meet the legal qualification of being a “general circulation” newspaper.
After Hoch Publishing tried unsuccessfully through the Kansas Press Association to get a non-binding opinion from the state attorney general’s office, the KPA Board of Directors issued its own opinion to the city in late May that the Digest circumvented the spirit of the law.
“Our concern has never really been about the amount of money or business that this represents,” said Eric Meyer, speaking for Hoch Publishing. “Although we appreciate the business, it’s just not that big of a deal. The real concern we have as a Hillsboro business is whether the city opens itself up to a liability.”
Meyer said if the case went to court, the KPA opinion would likely be introduced as “expert testimony.”
“I would look at it and say there is a sort of open peril here,” Meyer said.
“We won’t ever know exactly how a court is going to rule on that before they do,” he added. “I think there’s evidence out there-your bond attorney from the subdivision and some others who are reluctant-who think it’s one of those risks you don’t want to take.”
City Attorney Dan Baldwin told the council Hoch Publishing had indicated its willingness to sue the city if necessary.
“The last couple of letters I received had the word ‘litigation’ in them,” Baldwin told the council. “Bill Meyer (of Hoch Publishing) has stopped me on the street a couple of times. He’s been nothing but congenial, but clearly raising the potential that if we stayed on the present course, that was something that could happen.”
Eric Meyer responded: “The last thing we want to do is to sue the city of Hillsboro. I’m not saying we wouldn’t, but we really don’t want to do that.
“There are others we are aware of who believe that this is the necessary path and something that should be done,” he added. “Fact of the matter is, we’ve had offers of financial assistance to do that. We have been desperately trying to avoid a situation like that because we don’t want to be confrontational about this.”
The council met in executive session for 20 minutes for legal consultation. When the public meeting resumed, Padgett said, “Based on this unclear situation, I make a motion that we designate the Star-Journal as our paper, to be reviewed annually.”
The motion passed 3-0 with councilors Hiebert and Dirks joining Padgett’s affirmative vote. Councilor Leonard Coryea was absent.
Mayor Dalke added that a resolution will be prepared that will spell out the terms of the agreement.
Garrett said the future of the city-owned lot at 219 N. Main is yet to be determined. The city purchased the lot earlier this year to raze a dilapidated house there. He said he was still discussing the sale of the property with neighbors.
“If they’re not willing to pay a price at which we come out OK on that, we don’t have to sell that property,” said Mayor Dalke. “A lot of cities own property that has gone through this kind of thing. The most it’s going to cost us is to mow it and keep it under control.
“Rather than giving it to somebody who had a chance to buy it before we got involved, I think we should hold on to it,” she added. “There will be somebody who will be willing to pay a reasonable price for that property.”
Garrett said surveyors were in town to gather information about resurfacing Main Street from D Street to Third Street. According to Bob Previtera, the city’s engineer, the project will likely have to be completed in two phases, given available funding.
Garrett said he also asked Previtera to include one block of First Street, between Main and Ash, as part of the project.
“With the new post office, we’ll have a lot more use on the street than what we do now,” Garrett said.
Preliminary cost estimates on the project should be completed in time for the council’s July 3 meeting.