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Newport: Committee launches five month quest to find a way to fund sewer and water system upgrades without major hikes in utility bills

Newport Infrastructure Committee Seeking options

Newport Infrastructure Committee
Seeking options

IC Chairman David Allen challenges the committee to develop options

IC Chairman David Allen challenges the committee to develop options

A special committee trying to head off rapidly rising sewer and water bills laid out their plan of attack Wednesday at Newport City Hall. City Councilor and Chairman of the Infrastructure Committee David Allen challenged the group to clearly define the challenges to ensuring continued sewer and water services at a cost to ratepayers that won’t cause extreme financial hardship on already cash-strapped senior and low income residents.

Public Works Director Tim Gross told the committee that Newport’s aging water distribution and sewer collection systems are in dire condition having been neglected for decades and which are now posing huge maintenance costs that would be better addressed with new pipes and pumps. Gross has said several times before the city council that the city needs to come up with roughly $1.5 million dollars a year to replace water and sewer lines, a cost above and beyond standard maintenance of what’s already in the ground.

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So, how does the city raise $1.5 million a year? Allen and Gross, along with the rest of the committee, without mentioning the $1.5 million dollar figure, set out to wrap their minds around the enormity of the challenge. It was agreed that such a feat requires a complete top to bottom analysis of what the city spends its money on – sewer and water, parks and streets, stormwater system, city airport, city buildings, parks, it’s water reservoirs, water rights and dams. Everything.

Gross said the study should not only take stock of where the city’s finances are going today, but also whether, in the face of the town’s monumental infrastructure problem, it can afford to continue supporting those services at the same levels as they exist today.

The other side of the issue is new revenue. The committee mentioned a number of new revenue sources – each with their own advantages, disadvantages and likelihood (or not) of playing a role in meeting the challenge. Options include general obligation bonds, full faith and credit bonds, raising water and sewer rates, in lieu of franchise fee payments, urban renewal, low interest loans, local improvement districts, system development charges, grants, hotel-motel room taxes, overall fees and other revenues sources should the city annex property beyond South Beach proper thereby capturing enhanced property taxes that would then flow to the city rather than just to the county.

Chairman Allen then led the discussion as to how the committee should schedule its investigation into all this – exploring one piece of the puzzle at a time. It was agreed that there are roughly seven components that need to be examined:

* What sewer and water lines and pumps stations does the city now have operating and what is their condition?
* What needs to be done to bring those facilities back into good condition?
* What new funding sources might be developed to finance necessary sewer and water system upgrades?
* Where could the city reduce spending on city-wide services as outlined above in bold?
* What options might the city pursue in restructuring service levels in those above mentioned areas?
* What new methods of raising revenue could help keep those services at a reasonable level?
* And, toward the end of December, what will be the committee’s recommendations to the city council to bring the town’s sewer and water collection and distribution system back from the brink?

Upcoming committee meetings are open to the public and public input is invited. The committee decided to meet on the first and third Thursdays of the month, 3-4:30pm, through December in order to get their final report to the city council by the end of the year and just ahead of city budget planning sessions aimed at the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The next Newport Infrastructure Committee meeting will begin at 3pm, August 15th, at Newport City Hall.

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