Utility bill assistance urged
- Published: March 8, 2018
At Village Council’s Feb. 20 meeting, Council member Lisa Kreeger urged her colleagues to take action to help villagers struggling to pay their utility bills.
“This is a call to action to my fellow Council members to get moving on this immediately,” Kreeger said.
The comment was in response to a report by Village Assistant Manager Melissa Dodd on efforts to start a utility round-up program. The program, which Council has considered previously, would allow villagers to round up their utility bill payments in order to contribute the extra money to those who need financial assistance. In her report, Dodd said that few municipalities have such a program and that steps should be taken to ensure its legality. She also suggested that the Village wait until Jan. 1, 2019, to begin the program so that Village utility clerks could become familiar with new software.
Good year for
“Overall, 2017 was a great year” for Village finances, according to Village Assistant Manager/Finance Director Melissa Dodd, who presented the 2017 fourth-quarter financial statement at Council’s Feb. 20 meeting.
Most important, general fund revenues came in $333,000 higher than expected, Dodd said. The increase was due to unexpected income tax revenues, investment interest and the sale of a portion of the Sutton Farm.
The year also ended with robust surpluses in most of the utility funds.
The electric fund has a surplus of more than $2.5 million, the water fund a surplus of $581,855 and the sewer fund a surplus of $654,160, all well above the recommended surplus of at least three months of operating expenses, according to Dodd.
In response, Council member Judith Hempfling suggested that the large surpluses might indicate the Village has overshot its goals in increasing villagers’ utility rates. However, significant infrastructure upgrades will be needed soon, especially in the electric system, according to Village Manager Patti Bates, who suggested that Council also has the option of reducing the fee increases.
However, Kreeger disagreed.
“Software implementation should not take precedence over the people in our community,” she said, adding, “No one should have to move away from Yellow Springs because they can’t afford the utilities, but that’s not the case now.”
Council members Marianne MacQueen, Judith Hempfling and Kevin Stokes added their support to Kreeger.
“There are places that do this. I think we need to start. It is do-able,” MacQueen said, stating that she had begun working on the program a year ago, but had to delay due to a previous software change.
Three years ago, the Village imposed substantial hikes on utility use. Water rates were increased 30 percent a year for three years, then 2.5 percent for the next two years, and sewer rates were increased 15 percent for four years in a row, ending in 2019. Electric rates for residential users were increased about 12 percent. For a family that uses an average amount of utilities, the rate increases next year will total more than $600 yearly, compared to 2015.
The rate hikes followed years of the Village not raising utility rates, and were recommended by energy consultants. The water rate hike was needed due to the cost of the recently completed new water plant, Village leaders have said.
Kreeger and Stokes said they are hearing from villagers who are having trouble paying their bills.
“This is what folks are living through,” Stokes said. “It’s hitting real people.”
According to Dodd’s report to Council, it is rare for a municipality to have a round-up program, and she found only two doing so. The Ohio Auditor of State’s Local Government Services office advised that before implementing the program, the Village should ask the Solicitor for his legal opinion, after which Council would approve a resolution to create the fund. The legal opinion and resolution would then be submitted to the State Auditor’s office for approval, and guidelines and practices would be developed.
In the communities where such a program exists, it is administered by a local nonprofit such as a foundation, because a municipality should not be overseeing itself, Dodd said.
According to Village Solicitor Chris Conard, instituting a round-up program should be do-able.
“I don’t think there will be an issue with it if we want to do it,” he told Council.
Kreeger and MacQueen agreed to meet on the topic, and will report back to Council at an upcoming meeting.
In a related discussion on the topic of affordability, MacQueen stated her concern that Council, the Miami Township Trustees and the school board need to meet to collaborate on each entity’s requests to the community for more funding.
“We have wanted to meet with the school board for a couple of years, and it hasn’t happened,” she said. “We haven’t been talking to each other.”
In other Council Feb. 20 business:
• Council set Tuesday, March 13, at 7 p.m. as a special work session on the topic of establishing Council’s 2018 goals.
The move was in response to Council President Brian Housh presenting a list of eight Council goals for this year, following a Council goals discussion at a previous meeting. Following that meeting, Housh had incorporated Council comments into the list. However, several Council members felt the goals needed to be refined and prioritized.
“What are the most critical?” asked MacQueen, suggesting that the goals of affordability and housing top the list. Hempfling agreed with these priorities.
While Council members considered using the second half of a Council retreat for the goals discussion, they ultimately opted to meet on a week night in order to enhance public participation.
“Anything we can do to optimize community participation is good,” Kreeger said.
Villagers may access a survey on the 2018 Council goals online at the Facebook group VillageYS, or at http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2VDHFTP. Surveys are also available at the library, Tom’s Market, the Emporium, the Bryan Center and Senior Center.
• Dodd recommended that the Village not enter into an agreement with the online rental platform Airbnb to collect the recently initiated Village lodging tax revenues. While Airbnb offers such a service, the practice could be confusing to local residents who are renting out spaces in their homes, as they may be using other platforms for their rentals, according to Dodd, who also said she believes Village staff won’t have difficulty collecting the tax.
Council members agreed to keep an eye on how much burden the new tax places on staff members, and how difficult the tax is to collect. The main advantage of entering into the agreement with Airbnb is that the tax would automatically be collected without using Village staff.
“At this point, we will wait to see if this works for the staff,” Housh said.
• Villager Becky Campbell stated her distress that Council is considering putting housing on the Village-owned Glass Farm. Such a move would counter the results of a 2002 referendum in which villagers rejected a Village partnership with Home Inc. on the same land, Campbell said.
Campbell’s comment came during Council’s discussion of upcoming community forums in March that will focus on housing needs in the village.
In response to Campbell, MacQueen said the earlier referendum only addressed a specific affordable housing project and partnership with Home, Inc. What Council is now considering is a different vision of mixed income housing on the land, although no decisions have been made.
Regarding the referendum, “It was not about never having housing on the Glass Farm,” MacQueen said.
• Council unanimously approved the second reading of a new fund that allows the Village to hold residents’ overpayment of utility bills for the following month’s payment.
• Council unanimously approved the second reading of a fund to house the revenues obtained by the Village for the Yellow Springs-Clifton connector bikepath project. The project is a collaboration of several entities, and the Village is acting as custodian for the funds.
• Following its regular meeting, Council met in executive session for the discussion of the promotion of a public official.
Council’s next regular meeting is Monday, March 5, at 7 p.m. in Council chambers.