Newport City Council still trying to figure way forward on huge restoration of water, sewer and storm drain systems.
Newport Infrastructure Task Force Chair and City Councilor David Allen, and a few of his fellow task force members, presented their findings Monday night about ways to raise millions upon millions of dollars to replace Newport’s aging water, sewer and storm drain collection and distribution systems. It’s been estimated that Newport needs to raise $2-$3 million a year in order to replace failing water and sewer and storm drain lines all over town. At first, city Public Works Director Tim Gross laid out a rather steep multi-year increase in utility bills to raise the money. But his proposal was met with gasps, hues and cries from many townspeople who said they can’t afford such large increases.
So the task force went to work.
They came up with a series of suggested methods of raising the money: Pay as you go, revenue and general obligation bonds, grants, sales taxes on food and beverages at local restaurants, annexing new areas into the city to capture more property tax revenue, establish urban renewal taxing districts, budget shifting within the city, re-allocating the burden on what types of customers pay the most as well as the least, elevation charges and more information to residents via utility bills.
All these suggestions and a few more were thrown into the hopper except for perhaps the first one, pay as you go – just raise rates to get the work done. The council agreed that rate shock would be too severe. There was also some discussion about establishing a fund for low income residents for assistance in paying their water/sewer/storm drain bills. City Manager Spencer Nebel said there are assorted assistance templates that could work, but further analysis and determination of feasibility would have to be gone through in order to come up with a workable arrangement.
Public Works Director Tim Gross said he’s glad the city is finally coming to grips with the urgency of the city’s dilemma. He said his proposed five year rate increase plan was never intended to be the only approach to meeting the challenge – only to drive home that dramatically increased revenues are required to get the job done – to ensure the continued livability of the town and to enhance its economic growth.
Community Development Director Derrick Tokos said there are still big gaps in information that must be bridged before a final plan can be created to include variables like elevation, water conservation and low income assistance.
Councilor Mark Saelens said economic times are hard for just about everybody so to expect an outpouring of donations toward a utility donation fund for the low income probably isn’t reasonable. He suggested that the town’s general fund be tapped to help low income residents.
Allen called for lots of public input before a way forward is decided by the council. But City Manager Spencer Nebel had a different take on it. He said he wants to review the various funding options and strategies developed by the task force and talk them over with city staff and propose options for the council to consider as well as take public testimony. At that point a way forward may be a little more clear. Nebel also said that whatever combination of options might be appropriate would have to be included in the city’s upcoming budget preparations.
Nebel said he and staff will have further comments on the task force report very soon as part of the council’s annual goal setting exercise and, again, as the budget is planned for the 2014-15 fiscal year.