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Dassel council discusses how to make utility increases more bearable

Nov. 16, 2009

By Lynda Jensen

DASSEL, MN – The unpleasant task of raising utility rates – in order to cover the cost of three big projects for the city to improve infrastructure over the past few years – was the focal point of a work session for the Dassel City Council Tuesday.

The three projects include the following:

• the new water tower;
• improvements to the water treatment plant, which were pressed by the state; and
• Third Street water main improvements.

Together, the improvements added about $200,000 to debt service for utility accounts.

In addition to this, water usage is down, even though users stayed the same, which means the cost needs to be spread over the same number of people, with less revenue.

Administrator Myles McGrath noted that commercial users, in particular, seem to be using less water, with some high-volume accounts going down, such as the hatcheries, which used to use lots of water for cooling. “They added different systems now,” McGrath said.

Engineer Chuck DeWolf confirmed this. “That’s where you saw the biggest reduction.”

McGrath noted that one reason to build a new water tower was to provide better fire protection through better water flow and the like. Businesses are saving on their insurance because of this.

Mayor Mike Scanlon agreed, but added that “we can’t necessarily kill the golden goose,” and that it wasn’t wise to drive away businesses with high rates.

Concern for those on fixed incomes and senior citizens was expressed during the meeting a number of times.

There are two different components to the water bill, the base rate and the per gallon rate. Both of these were looked at for possible increases.

The average household uses about 4,000-5,000 gallons of water per month. There are 630 users in the city.

It was noted that the last time the utility rates went up was in 2003.

To cure the shortfall in the water fund would take an increase of 35 percent, although this figure could be divided up over three years or so, or a portion spread over the tax base. It’s possible that the public works portion of the fund balance could be shifted to a different fund balance and that this would be spread across the entire budget, rather than just addressed inside the utility fund.

“That’s way too much,” Council Member Bob Lalone said when the figure was first quoted.

Scanlon proposed phasing an increase of rates over three years. McGrath proposed having a rate increase of 12 percent the first year, 11 percent the following year, and 10 percent the third year as an example. Any increase will take effect in January of 2010 and show up on February 2010 bills (not 2011, as published in the print version).

Cokato rates were consulted, but attendees at the meeting decided the rates were just too high. “No offense to our neighbors to the east,” Scanlon said. Scanlon said he compared his bill with a similar bill from a two-person home in Cokato and it was exactly double.

Council members discussed the idea of changing the way the sewer is billed, which currently takes an average use in December for charges – meant to not penalize people who water their lawns in the summer – and will continue this discussion. Scanlon said the city can’t charge for something that residents aren’t using (namely sewer services while watering lawns).

Odds and ends

In other business, the council reviewed quotes to add a bathroom to the empty half of the liquor store building, in order to make the empty portion more attractive to potential renters.

The liquor store currently takes up 5,800 sq. ft. The empty portion takes up 2,900 sq. ft. plus 2,200 sq. ft. in the shop and back area.

• Scanlon noted that the food shelf lease was signed, and that a refrigerator and freezer are being brought in. The next issue is shelving, which needs to be addressed. The hope is to open by mid-December, he said.

• the council was asked if the ambassadors could use the 3/4 ton truck owned by the city, and used by public works, for pulling its new float in two parades during the cold weather (Winsted’s lighted parade and Maple Lake during St. Patrick’s Day).

The city has insurance for this and it is a common custom for other cities to allow use of their trucks for pulling floats.

Dave Scepaniak of public works, who was not present at the meeting, initially said it was OK, but then later objected, saying he might need the truck for on-call during those times. The council didn’t think this would be a real problem.

The council’s general opinion was that this would be fine. No motion was required.


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