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Sewer rate hike approved at discordant meeting

Trash collection alternative also discussed

A $5-per-month sewer rate increase was approved on first reading at Thursday’s rescheduled Belle Center Council meeting that once again was fraught with discord between council and Mayor Rhonda Fulmer.

The vote on the hike in the utility rate was proposed by Councilwoman Dione Campbell at the end of the meeting, which began with a confrontation between the councilwoman and the mayor over whether the mayor should be allowed to make an audio recording of the proceedings.

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Click to watch video clip of Thursday's meeting

 

Council recently voted to stop making an official audio recording of the proceedings because the village must retain the record and the councilwoman alleged the mayor’s personal tapes violated that rule.

Village Solicitor Steve Fansler advised council that any elected official or village employee has the same right as a private citizen or news organization to make a recording of a public meeting although it is not an official document. It could be used — in a worst case scenario — if a lawsuit were filed, the lawyer said.

As the argument against the mayor’s right to make a personal recording was being made, the Bellefontaine Examiner was also making a video recording of the meeting, portions of which will be available at www.examiner.org.

Council did, however, reject two sets of minutes from recent meetings that reflected changes the mayor had made, based upon the tapes, to Fiscal Officer Cindy Longbrake’s accounts. Council instead voted to accept the original documents prepared by Ms. Longbrake as the official records.

Council then heard from two representatives of Republic Services on privatizing trash pickup in the village and from two representatives of the Indian Lake Water Pollution Control District on the need to identify and correct clean water discharges into the sanitary sewer system.

Republic’s Area Municipal Market Manager Terry Thompson and Division Manager Season Wall spoke on the trash collection issue, telling council their company, which also operates the Cherokee Run Landfill north of Bellefontaine, could collect trash once weekly, up to three bags per household, at approximately the same cost as the village is charging now.

Mayor Fulmer invited the speakers because the village is facing the prospect of buying a new trash truck to replace its 1990 model as well as aging trash containers.

The speakers said they would work out arrangements with businesses, provide their own trash containers, a truck and a driver, handle billing and arrange for special services such as spring cleanup events.

Council listened and took no action except to relegate the issue to the village Enterprise Committee. Later in the meeting, however, council agreed to purchase three new trash containers at a cost of up to $672 each.

Chris Carter and Ron Jacob, representing the sewer district that serves Belle Center and the Indian Lake area, then told council the village is facing a serious issue as the Environmental Protection Agency has handed down mandates that sewer districts eliminate clean water infiltration and inflow, (INI for short), and upgrade to plants that can handle total discharges.

That means the village will be responsible for identifying properties that have storm water discharges into the sanitary sewer through devices such as sump pumps. It will then be up to the property owners to fix the problems, Mr. Carter said.

“As much as I’m adamant about it has to be removed, residents are going to complain about drainage issues,” he said. “I came in here in the spirit of cooperation and have no intention of pursuing any enforcement issues. Right now, it’s an issue of you finding the sources and working with those people and taking it slow.”

He also noted that is one of the major reasons the village finds itself spending between $10,000 and $15,000 per year repairing or replacing grinder pumps.

And that very issue is among one of the main reasons the village soon will be left with less than $1,000 in its sewer operating fund.

Village Administrator Gerald Houchin recently ordered $8,135 in parts that he told council will not be enough to make necessary repairs. He also said the village needs $1,000 in special tools to properly make such repairs.

Based on that and the need for future improvements to the aging infrastructure, Councilwoman Campbell made her motion for the $5 rate increase, which was seconded by Councilwoman Garnet Roebuck.

“We need this money for repairs,” Ms. Campbell said.

“You’re supposed to keep at least three months in reserve,” Ms. Roebuck added. “That’s what Jack Reser (city auditor) said about Bellefontaine.”

“It is a good practice,” Mr. Fansler added.

Mayor Fulmer, who has staunchly opposed rate increases during her four years on council and year-and-a-half as mayor, made a case that the village has been able to meet its needs and noted that if the INI issues are corrected, as Mr. Carter said they must be in the near future, it will reduce the load on the city equipment and decrease repair costs.

Despite heated and sometimes vocal rebuttals, council wasn’t buying that argument.

“Whether you raise your voice or not, you still haven’t answered my question,” Council President Rick Bednarki said before the mayor continued to cite her reasons to vote against the measure.

Mr. Fansler then suggested that as a motion was on the table and seconded, it should be voted up or down and can be discussed further as mandatory second and third readings come up at future meetings.

“But you still haven’t answered my question,” Mr. Bednarki said before the vote was taken. “It’s a simple one: Do we need a rate increase?”

“I’m saying, according to the numbers, no,” Mayor Fulmer responded.

Council voted 5-0 to pass the rate hike with Councilman Dustin Plikerd abstaining.

In other action during the meeting, council approved a measure to designate the former railroad property it recently purchased between Buckeye and Main streets an official street named Dave Keller Avenue. The measure allows Mr. Houchin to use money available through Logan County’s half-percent road and bridges sales tax and grant money for improvements to the area that surrounds the historic depot that is currently undergoing renovation.

Council meets again in regular session at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 11.

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