Tempers flair at Florence meeting over water future

Florence City Council member Trayce Warner looks at a map outlining the water mains and sewer lines within the city. Warner said the reason for the rate increases, which were approved by a majority, will help maintain the water plant and the repairs and replacement coming up for the mains and lines. Patty Decker.

Chaos erupted at the June 18 Florence City Council meeting after one council member shouted down residents by calling for an adjournment when the conversation turned unruly with talk of the city springs.

Council Member Matt Williams called for the adjournment after tempers started to flare on both sides of the aisle.

With no discussion on Williams’ motion, and after a quick second was made, the meeting ended by a vote of 3-1, with Councilwoman Trayce Warner opposing.

But before Williams called for adjournment, Warner spoke after being recognized by Mayor Bob Gayle.

“OK, I will address the elephant in the room,” Warner said. “I want to know why it was reported in one of the newspapers that I don’t understand [the DeForest issues]. There are a lot of hurt feelings.”

Gayle said he would like to see the article before he responded to it. Warner handed Gayle her copy of the Free Press from June 13.

One person said most residents just want to hear updates on the negotiations between the city and the DeForest family.

“We don’t know what’s going on, and we have never seen the contract previously approved by the council in December of 2017,” the resident said.

Another said: “I know you [Gayle] don’t want to talk about this, but are you going to tell us what is gong on after it’s all said and done and when we can’t do anything about it?”

“No,” Gayle said, adding that the council is in the middle of a negotiations, and state statute provides for executive sessions to discuss these matters.

“We don’t have anything new to bring to the public, and before anything is signed, the public will know about it,” he said.

“And, do you think I really enjoy this [fighting]?” Gayle asked the residents. “I don’t enjoy this any more than the rest of you do.”

Some residents said they were thinking that June 16 was the last day to go with a negotiated contract with the DeForest family.

The group was referring to the previous meeting when Williams, and the rest of the council, save Warner, voted to approve the removal of all previous offers to the DeForest family.

The motion was to purchase the “city springs,” roadway and utility easements for $60,000.

Within the motion, Williams also stated that if the DeForest family refuses the offer after seven days, the council would automatically move for eminent domain.

However, if the family needs more time, they could contact Gayle for an additional three days for a total of 10 business days before taking legal action toward eminent domain.

Another resident asked about a contract that was already signed by the DeForest family and questioning why that one wasn’t used.

Warner said: “We actually wrote the contract [in December], and we offered it to the DeForest family; they signed it and sent it back.”

Gayle interceded by saying that was done by the previous council prior to new council members being voted in.

Even though any decisions regarding eminent domain or the possibility of ratifying a contract weren’t on the agenda, a majority of the 25-plus citizens still wanted to talk about it.

Rate increases

The council also approved increasing water rates, sewer rates, trash rates for both residents and commercial business, dumpster rental and dwelling units outside city limits.

Warner said the reason for the increase is because of costs associated with maintaining the water plant and/or repairs and replacement to the water and sewer mains.

“The sewer mains are getting old,” she added.

After the council approved rate increases, Janet Robinson, city clerk, said water rates will increase starting in August from $18 for the first 2,000 gallons (minimum charge) to $23.

Anything above 2,000 gallons, she said, will increase from $8 per 1,000 gallons to $13.

The order also included a review to happen on or before Jan. 31 of each year, but if the council determines to increase the rate, it will be increased by 3 percent or if no increase is deemed necessary, no action will be taken, she said.

“The city is increasing sewer rates from $12.75 to $17.75, along with the same review as the water rates each year, and trash rates will increase from $10 to $12 monthly for residents in Florence without a dumpster,” she said.

Warner opposed the $5 monthly increase on water and sewer monthly rate increases but did say the annual review was a good idea. The other council members approved the increases.

Residents with a dumpster will have an increase from $20 to $25 per month, plus the rental cost of the dumpster, Robinson said. Commercial establishments will have a trash rate increase to $30 monthly.

“Commercial establishments with a dumpster will increase to $30 monthly for once a week pickup, plus dumpster rental,” she said. “Commercial establishments with multiple pickups will see an increase of an additional $15 per month.”

Dumpster rental will increase to $30 each month for dwellings in and outside the Florence city limits, and commercial establishments outside city limits will increase to $35.

“Additional haul rate for picking up commercial establishments or dwellings is $15,” Robinson said, “and mileage rates will apply for additional pickups outside the city limits.”

Dwelling units at Marion County Lake, the City of Cedar Point, City of Burns, and Aline areas shall increase to $13.75 and commercial to $25.

In other business, the council:

◼ approved an ordinance to hire an engineering firm to approve the levee in Florence according to FEMA guidelines. At this point, Gayle said the cost could be anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 for the certification.

◼ heard from Susan Reid regarding a $19,000 USDA grant the library will receive toward fixing the curb and guttering if the council votes to approve publishing the application. The public meeting was scheduled at July 2. Reid said the Florence Library should know by Aug. 3 if the grant is approved. The council voted three in favor, with councilor Reilly Reid abstaining.

◼ approved allowing the Sharp Brothers access to the city’s football field as a distribution and drying point for seed.

◼ asked Reid if the library does its own audit. Reid said, “yes.” Warner then suggested that because tax dollars are used, it makes more sense that the audit is done by the city.

◼ heard about water plant issues and the need to rebuild one of the pumps in place.

◼ agreed with Mark Slater, Florence fire chief, to establish hours for fireworks on June 27-30 and July 1, 2 and 5 from noon to 10 p.m. On July 4, the council voted to allow fireworks from 8 a.m. to midnight.

◼ heard from Scott Zogelman with Florence EMS, who said there were five ambulance runs during the past two weeks.

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