HEIDI ZEMACH for SCN
Seward residents and those who use city services will be expected to pay increasingly higher sewage bills in the next two years, and slightly higher fees for other city services such as electricity and water, while city employees will receive their first cost of living adjustment (COLA) in two years.
The Seward City Council also created two new city positions when it passed the $7.6 million Biennial General Fund Budget for the calendar years 2014 and 2015 at Tuesday’s Nov 12th city council meeting.
The biggest fee increases approved were the wastewater (sewage) fees, which will go up by 5.2 percent in each of the next two years. The first 5.2 percent increase begins in January of 2014. The next 5.2 percent increase begins the following January. The rate increases were deemed necessary by council and city administrators in order to provide funding to help meet current wastewater department infrastructure needs, foremost of which is repairing and dredging the two sewage lagoons at Lowell Point and SMIC. The one at Lowell Point hasn’t been dredged in two decades, some of its mechanical parts have begun to malfunction, and it stank throughout last spring and summer, driving away business and angering residents. The wastewater funds’ long-deferred maintenance, repair and replacement fund, known as “MRRF” has only about $60,000 currently. Meanwhile, disposing of 4,700 cubic yards of dewatered sludge would cost an estimate $1.2 million, city officials said. More fees flowing into the department would help the city qualify for low-interest loans and bond funding to replace the needed capital infrastructure, administration said.
The wastewater fund also will be allowed to delay its payments to the city general fund for services the city provides it for the next two years. It will save that department’s enterprise fund about $50,000 per year, and keep the fee increases lower than they could otherwise have been.
The city council also agreed to fund a new project manager position for the public works department. That employee will oversee the city’s major upcoming projects, and will thus allow the public works staff to continue working on the day-to-day issues for which they are qualified. The salary for that position is yet to be determined, but funding was allocated in the budget by determining a third of current personnel costs in each of the water, wastewater and general fund departments.
Most of the enterprise funds received automatic $2.6 percent fee increases based on the Anchorage CPI (Cost Price Index) for the previous five years. The separate enterprise funds approved included the Small Boat Harbor Fund, SMIC Fund, Parking Fund, Electric, Water and Wastewater Funds, Hospital, Seward Mountain Haven, and Motor Pool fund.
Earlier, the council had approved a higher Harbor tariff rate structure that included moorage rate CPI increases of 2.6 %, and electric rate increases of 8.3% in 2014, and 3.8% in 2015. The higher electricity rates were geared to allow the harbor department to repay the city general fund for the increased costs it will incur from increased city fees for services.
The council also approved a 3 % Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increase for 2014 for city employees, and another 3% COLA for 2015, but froze all employee merit-based increases that year. About half of the general fund employees are at the “J” step, and are thus not able to advance in pay without a COLA increase, administration said. Fifty-one percent of city employees will be affected by a freeze in merit increases in 2015. The last COLA employees had was 1.2 % in 2011, and it had been eliminated from the 2012 and 2013 budgets.
The council also agreed to hire an interim director for the new federally-funded Community Health Clinic, which will be formed by Seward Community Health Center Board and City Council over the next four months. The council also agreed to pay $150,000 toward a remodel of the Seward Providence Medical & Care Center to accommodate the clinic’s move into the facility and allow a better patient flow.
The city property tax (mill) rate remains the same at 3.12 mills.
Compared to prior years’ budget battles, the biennial budget for 2014 and 2015 was passed with little fanfare. Few members of the public participated in work sessions or spoke at public hearings, and there was little debate at the council level except for some discussion on issues such as how to begin to fund needed improvements at the sewage lagoons, whether a new public works project manager should be hired in house or whether it could be a new or sub-contracted position, and whether the SMIC Fund should be contributing more to the general fund.
Former City Mayor David Seaward has been replaced by then Vice Mayor Jean Bardarson in the City Municipal Election in October, and former Fire Chief Dave Squires was elected to the council, replacing councilman Bob Valdatta. The one-year remainder of Bardarson’s term will be filled by Dale Butts, who was appointed by the council at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.