By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Following its approval in a 4-to-1 vote at last Monday’s meeting to raise sewer and water rates, the Cokato City Council had a change of heart, scheduling a special meeting Monday, March 25 at 6 p.m. at Cokato City Hall to revisit and further discuss why the increase is needed.
Although a public hearing took place at the beginning of the council meeting, no citizens came to speak about the proposed rate increases.
Mayor Gordy Erickson and council members Jesse Bunker, Carl Harju, and Jarod Sebring voted in favor of the rate increases, and Council Member Butch Amundsen voted against them.
“The reason I oppose this is the sewer fund is fine as it is, and I don’t know that the public was given proper notice aside from the posting here and maybe in the paper,” Amundsen said.
A few months ago, the council asked City Clerk Peggy Carlson to analyze the sewer and water rates to make sure the city was collecting enough to cover its operating costs, something that hasn’t been done since 2009.
In her analysis, Carlson noted that the base rates, which cover the city’s bond payments and the depreciation of infrastructure, could be decreased. However, usage rates would need to increase in order to cover operating costs.
“I have a real tough time looking at an increase in the sewer rates; I don’t see the necessity,” Amundsen said, noting that even if the city is not recouping all the operating costs, there is money in the fund to cover it.
The sewer fund is used to fund sewer projects, such as the west side lift station serving the Dassel-Cokato high school and middle school campus and the Prairie Avenue extension, two projects that took place last summer and fall.
“This year there was a lot of money spent, and that fund still looks like it’s in good shape,” Amundsen said.
Although Bunker acknowledged there may be a need for an increase, he noted the city was going to hear about increasing the rates by so much all at once.
“As much as I don’t like it, we have to cover the [operating] costs,” Bunker said.
Sebring asked if the money collected was used for city infrastructure improvements.
Carlson replied that money collected for depreciation is, but that is included in the base fee.
“I’m hoping something can be done with Seventh Street very soon,” Harju said, asking Public Works Director Jeff DeGrote if the lines have been televised on that street.
“I thought we’re just redoing the overlay there; forget about infrastructure that’s a million dollar project we can’t afford,” Amundsen said.
“But sometimes you can’t afford not to,” Sebring countered.
Harju noted he still wanted the lines televised to get a better idea of what is under Seventh Street, and at least consider repairing the worst parts rather than tearing it up again in a couple of years.
The fee schedule approved at the meeting reduces the water base rates from $29 to $27, and the sewer base rates from $20.16 to $16.
The usage rates under the new fee schedule will increase by a certain percentage for residents, depending how much water is used.
The water usage rates for 1 to 3,000 gallons will increase from $2.94 to $3.75 per 1,000 gallons; for 3,000 to 10,000 gallons from $3.92 to $4.68; for 10,000 to 50,000 gallons from $4.90 to $5.85; and for 50,000 or more gallons from $7.35 to $7.67.
The sewer usage rates for 1 to 3,000 gallons will increase from $3.17 to $4.75 per 1,000 gallons; for 3,000 to 10,000 gallons from $4.23 to $5.85; for 10,000 to 50,000 gallons from $5.28 to $6.95; and for 50,000 gallons or more from $7.92 to $8.25.
For the average residence, which uses between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of water per month, the sewer and water bill increase will be between $1.01 and $5.77 per month.
Change orders questioned by council
“Who OKed the change order?” Amundsen asked regarding an additional $10,700 being requested from Burschville Construction to close out the Lee Avenue storm sewer improvement.
City Administrator Don Levens noted city engineer Eric Lembke of Stantec recommended submission of the change order, due to a change in the work that needed to be done at that site, and the council was being asked to approve it at the meeting.
“No, [the work] has already been done. I’m asking who authorized it and why was it done?” Amundsen said.
DeGrote noted that a home at the site of the project had its sanitary and water lines running through the storm sewer.
Bunker noted he asked Levens before the meeting about the difference in the estimate compared to the actual project cost.
“We both recalled the original estimate as being $100,000, so this is over by about $16,000. We’ve had estimates come in under the actual cost on our last three projects,” Bunker pointed out. “If this were the private sector, someone would get fired.”
Erickson noted that with the last few projects, it was not known what the city was dealing with until the crews started digging.
Bunker pointed out that the city is old, and has old infrastructure, and these types of problems should be foreseen with a cushion built into the estimate.
“The wastewater treatment plant project was underestimated by the value of my house, including the cost of a hatchback,” Bunker said. “I don’t know how we can keep doing things the way that we are and look people in the eye.
“I am indignant at the fact this wasn’t foreseen that someone did not have the foresight that this might happen.”
Although the change order was questioned, the council approved making the final payment of $19,592 to close out the Lee Avenue storm sewer improvement project.
The original contract amount was $103,907, and the revised contract amount was $114,613.
Odds and ends
In other business, the council:
• approved the third payment of $679 to Juul Contracting for the Prairie Avenue sewer and water extension.
This project includes a change order of $3,902. The original contract amount was $102,547, and the revised contract amount was $106,449.
• approved a planning and zoning variance for Steelcraft to build a commercial building at 14181 East US Highway 12.
The owners of Steelcraft are David and Jeanne Mages.
• heard that the winter parking ban will be suspended effective Monday, April 1.
• received information that traffic on Wright County State Aid Highway 3 south of Cokato to the McLeod County line will be limited to vehicles weighing no more than 5 tons per axle.
Construction on the two-year project was suspended over the winter months, and activity will resume when the 2013 construction season begins.
The 5 ton road postings will go into effect in order to preserve the investment in the newly-built gravel surface and road bed.