Steelville aldermen don’t agree on how much of a fee should be charged to city residents for their trash service. Aldermen Mike Pounds and Charles Chipman argued strongly against the administrative fees for trash service that were proposed by City Comptroller Jennifer Basham at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
The council had agreed to a contract with Swinger Sanitation at the previous meeting, but had asked for more information on the administrative fees the city tacks onto the charges from the contractor. Pounds and his counterpart Dave Hatcher questioned the wisdom of adding more of a burden to the residents of the city who must pay for the service.
Alderman Terry Beckham had not been at the meeting where the contract was approved and Hatcher was not at Tuesday’s meeting, so the full council was not together to discuss the decision to be made on the fees. No consensus was reached Tuesday and Mayor Terry Palmer expressed his frustration with the situation.
“I don’t know where we’re at. This is ridiculous, to sit here and talk about this like we have,” Palmer said. “We talked all last meeting, now this meeting. We’re five or six dollars cheaper than out of town. I know how it is. Believe me, we don’t want to raise prices, but it’s our responsibility that this city doesn’t go bankrupt. We operate on a 3.5 million budget for a town this size. There are towns going bankrupt. We have to pass increases on to customer. I’m just blown away. I’ve sat here for 10 years and have never gone through this on trash. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
Discussion began Tuesday with Basham presenting her recommendation for administrative fees. Currently, the total cost to the customer is $9.75, and $1.17 of that is an administrative fee that goes to the city. The fee has been charged on a fluctuating scale in the past, starting at $1.67 over the base rate during the first year, then $1.39, then $1.17. The city contracts with a solid waste removal provider for three years at a time, and the fees were added onto the cost involved. Basham recommended adding the same fluctuating scale to the new contract.
“We need to stick with that,” she said. “If we lose that revenue, we will have to cut expenditures. We do not have room for error.”
However, Pounds questioned the need for a higher fee than the current amount in addition to the increase in the base charge. “My main concern is I have to be cautious of continuing to add more to the customer. Things are going up and we have to look at every aspect of trying to maintain what we can,” he said. He asked about maintaining the current administrative fee of $1.17 over the contract charge, instead of increasing it to $1.67 for the first year.
Basham replied, “You can’t just raise it by $1.17 for each contract year. We’ve got to keep that same revenue base.”
“Maybe we need to cut expenditures,” Pounds answered. He also asked if the council could review it on a year-by-year basis, instead of locking in a three-year plan.
Basham again pointed out that the city needs the revenue, adding that another factor to consider is the amount of bad debt the city will have to write off each year.
“Our bad debt on that part is not extreme,” Pounds said. “I understand what you’re saying, but I’m looking at it from the aspect of the customer. Rates are going up. If we can maintain our administrative fee now for the next year before the rates go up after that, we can revisit the issue at that point in time and see if it’s a problem.”
“We say we’re going to cut expenditures, but it never happens,” Basham said. “Revenue has to equal expenditures. If you go out and cut that revenue base down, what expenditures are you going to cut? Overtime? Trucks?”
“Things are getting tougher for everybody,” Pounds responded. “I don’t think we can continue to add to the customer’s expenditures. I don’t think we should have them pay more so we can play.” He explained he doesn’t have a problem with an administrative fee, but is against an increase in that fee.
While Basham countered that her proposal was the same fee structure as had been utilized in the past, Pounds was firm in his opinion that the fee should stay at $1.17 as is currently in place.
Beckham interjected, “If we have a shortfall, we will have to make it up somewhere. I don’t think it’s that big of an issue.”
But, Chipman agreed with Pounds. “We tell everyone, ‘You’re going to take trash service.’ It just doesn’t set well with me to raise the administration fee.” Chipman referred to the city policy that anyone who has utility services through the city is also required to pay for trash collection. “What I don’t like is that there is no choice for them. If we go with $1.17, it will raise their cost 90 cents, but if we go with the recommendation, it will raise it $1.40 per month.”
“What I think we should do is stay at $1.17, then at the end of the next fiscal year we look at the issue again,” Pounds reiterated.
Basham stated that would be difficult because setting the fees requires an ordinance change each time they are adjusted. “If we have to report to you guys each time, we could lose time,” she said. “We need to know what to change. We don’t have enough time in the billing cycle to come back and ask you to change.” When Pounds asked if that meant she wanted him to make a decision for three years in advance, she replied, “Yes.”
Chipman also questioned why the council couldn’t look at the fees on a yearly basis, and Basham pointed out that they are supposed to review water and sewer rates on a yearly basis, but they have not been changed for two years.
Beckham reiterated that, if the funds were necessary, they would have to find a way to come up with them.
Mayor Palmer noted, “The city has been doing this for years; I don’t know why it’s a problem now.” He pointed out that it was not a dramatic increase, but just over a dollar, and that it was the same fee schedule as had been in place.
“Everything just keeps going up,” Pounds said, noting that there are a number of things the council doesn’t have control over, including electric rates. But he questioned increasing the items, such as these fees, that the council can determine.
Again, Beckham stated a shortfall would have to be addressed and said, “The bottom line is it doesn’t make a difference.”
Pounds said, “I have no problem with the $1.17 if we’re going to do it for the next three years. I just don’t like the fluctuating. Trash cost will go up each year to the customer anyway.”
“It is not my recommendation to go with the $1.17 per year,” Basham said. Beckham noted that he was in favor of her proposal to go with the fluctuating fees.
Pounds said he felt Hatcher should be a part of the decision and questioned whether the council could call a special meeting to further address it. Beckham responded, “This is peanuts, Mike.” And the mayor expressed his frustration with the extended discussion on what he considers a minor issue.
Beckham made a motion to approve the fees as recommended by Basham, but the motion died for lack of a second.
“I guess we move on then,” Palmer said. “We’re not going to sit here and talk about this all night.”