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City staff responds to anger over utility rate increase

Staff Photo

By Kati Moody

Thursday, Erik Rejino, assistant city manager for the City of Levelland, responded to backlash from the community over utility rate increases.

The city council held a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year budget for 2017-18, which included the proposed utility rate increases, Monday, August 28, at City Hall.

Nobody showed up to voice comments about the proposed budget. Later in the meeting, the council approved Ordinance No. 1022, raising the water availability rate by $1, the water rate by five percent, garbage rate by 3.25 percent and sewer rate by 15 percent, on first reading.

When the news broke about the utility rate changes on Wednesday, residents took to social media to voice their opinions about the rate changes.

The overall opinion of the rate changes was negative and most people did not agree that the city should raise rates, particularly garbage rates.

Many complained the City of Levelland was not providing adequate garbage services and shouldn’t raise rates because theirs and their neighbors alley dumpsters were overflowing.

The News-Press drove through neighborhoods and took pictures of some, specifically five, dumpsters that were full or overflowing. The receptacles were all in the Kauffman addition.

Rejino addressed the public concern over the utility rate increase and the comments that the city wasn’t providing adequate services.

Rejino said the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulates the Levelland landfill to not exceed 7,300 tons of household waste per fiscal year. He said the city normally collects around 10,000 tons of household waste and anticipates reaching capacity every year.

“That’s why we want to push for recycling,” Rejino said. “We recycle one to two percent of our waste at this point and for the foreseeable future, the landfill is only designed to accommodate most of that load.”

While the city’s garbage provider, Republic Services, could not take waste to the Levelland landfill, they had to transport the waste to other area landfills, which was time consuming.

Rejino said along with the Levelland landfill, several other area landfills were also closed because they had reached capacity. One of the only landfills that was open was in Lubbock.

He said Republic Services also got behind on its trash pick-ups during the week in which the city received more than five inches of rain. This led to the piling of garbage behind some homes.

Rejino said garbage services should have resumed normally Friday, September 1, as it is the beginning of the new fiscal year, resetting the yearly total allotted at the landfill for household waste.

In reference to the overall reaction to the utility rate increases, Rejino said they were necessary for the city to make improvements to infrastructure, required by the state.

“There are $1.8 million in projects we are mandated to do by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” Rejino said. “And we are not borrowing a dime for those, we are taking them all out of the enterprise fund.”

He said the enterprise fund is a city fund designed to be self-sustaining by the services it provides. Rejino said increasing rates is to cover increasing costs associated with services provided.

The alternate to not doing the projects mandated by TCEQ, Rejino said, would be fines per day until the issue is repaired.

“That would end up costing us more in the long run because we would still have to spend the money on the projects plus the money for fines,” Rejino said.

In the Republic Services contract, they are entitled to a yearly rate increase based off findings by the U.S. Department of Labor. Last year, they received a five percent increase.

“That’s a wash for us, we don’t see any additional fund balance from those increases,” Rejino said.

In order to make up for the increasing costs, Rejino said utility rate increases are the only solution, unless the city raises the tax rate.

“The only other way to subsidize those is by raising the tax rate or taking the money out of the general fund,” Rejino said.

The second reading for Ordinance No. 1022, raising utility rates, is set to be at the Monday, September 11 city council meeting. The city is also set to adopt the proposed tax rate up to 78 cents and the 2017-18 fiscal year budget at that meeting.

The city provides an opportunity for citizens to address the city council during the public comments period at every meeting. Comments are limited to three minutes and those wishing to speak must sign up prior to the start of the meeting.

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