Upset by $32 surcharge, Elliott residents pack meeting room

ELLIOTT — Water quality and increased water bills were on the minds of about 25 Elliott residents who came to Tuesday night’s village board meeting to vent their dissatisfaction with recent board action.

The standing-room-only crowd expressed dissatisfaction with the board’s decision at its Feb. 12 meeting to approve a water surcharge of $32 per bimonthly billing cycle — or $16 per month — for each water meter. The surcharge was to continue for a period of 12 years.

The surcharge was imposed to provide a revenue source to repay a $300,000 bond the board had earlier approved to cover the $205,000 cost of sandblasting and repainting the town’s water tower, plus engineering fees and related costs.

Village Board President Russell Ehlers welcomed the crowd by saying, “I’m glad you all showed up.” Ehlers promised the public would hear facts on the water-tower issue.

Ehlers invited three experts to the meeting to help address questions:

— Joe Pisula, an engineer with Donohue & Associates of Champaign who has provided engineering consultation on the village’s water tower.

— Tim King of Kings Financial Consulting in Monticello, who was present to review bond options and costs.

— And Mark Webster, an experienced water operator who has worked for the villages of Loda and Elliott and who now works for Gibson City’s water department

Public wants improved water, not cosmetic fix
King’s presentation was about the possibility of Elliott lowering the $32 surcharge by extending the bond repayment term.

After the presentation, however, it quickly became apparent that those present did not want any short-term cosmetic fix for the water tower. Rather, they wanted better water quality and especially better water pressure.

Public suggestions included a new, taller water tower or other means to increase pressure along with new water lines to withstand the hike in water pressure. The public suggested that grants or low-interest loans could be obtained from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

King told visitors, however, that loans or grants typically pay only 20 to 50 percent of a project’s cost, potentially leaving a large balance to be paid by residents. It also would need to be shown that potential projects would significantly improve water quality.

King and Pisula agreed that a potential project for significant water improvement could cost $1 million or more.

Ehlers told the crowd that he had previously investigated grant possibilities for the water-tower repainting project but learned that the project was too small or simply was not eligible.

Review of painting project
Pisula said that as part of the investigation process for the repainting job, a small submarine with a camera was placed inside the water tower’s tank. Resulting photographs showed the interior was in pretty good shape, he said.

However, Pisula said there is now mill scale present on the tank’s outer surface, which is the reason that sandblasting is necessary for paint adhesion. Pisula said the mill scale is what causes areas of the tower to appear black instead of bare steel that would appear silver.

Ehlers said the repainting project would have to include containment of the lead-based paint still on the tower, and that cost is part of the quoted price. Ehlers said the board chose the lowest bid from the eight it received in October 2018.

As an engineer for many small communities in Central Illinois, Pisula reviewed scenarios of what others have done. Pisula distributed a water-rate comparison for other communities, and he also noted that water pressure expected by residents will vary by community.

Pisula also said that although a contract has been signed with Viking Industrial Painting of Omaha, Neb., it could either be amended or terminated. Pisula recommended having a telephone conference to include himself, Ehlers and the company to see if there would be penalties for cancelation or postponing the work. A scheduled planning meeting with the vendor that was set for March 27 will be canceled, Pisula said.

Pisula estimated the village had paid his firm about $27,000 in engineering fees to date.

Communication emphasized
Some residents complained that the board had approved the repainting work and related surcharge without public input.

They were told that all decisions were discussed and voted on at public meetings, beginning in October 2018. Only two residents chose to attend any of those meetings, Ehlers said.

Residents asked that larger notices with meeting agendas should be posted at both the local post office and on the window of the Village Hall.

Resident Nellie Kinder emphasized the board was not at fault.

“It’s our own fault that we didn’t know about this because none of us attended village board meetings,” Kinder said.

Ehlers stressed that the board’s meetings are open to the public.

“We want to know what you think,” Ehlers added.

Water cooperative contact recommended
David Hudson of Dewey, who works with that Champaign County community’s water department, had several suggestions for the board to consider.

Hudson especially advocated contacting EJ Water Cooperative Inc. of Dietrich. The nonprofit cooperative works in various ways to help water departments in more than 12 Illinois counties.

Hudson said the cooperative’s assistance has allowed Dewey to move from a water fund deficit to a balance of more than $40,000.

Rumors addressed
Ehlers said talk that water-tower painting continued even during rainy weather in 2014 was unfounded. Ehlers also disagreed with those who thought that water inside the tank was allowed to completely freeze — and that was the reason the paint delaminated in large sheets.

Pisula said that freezing was only responsible for damage to the tank’s float. Instead of replacing it, plans called for installing a pressure meter, which would also advise firemen of the tank’s capabilities.

Ehlers said he routinely calls about 15 residents during extremely cold weather and asks them to leave a trickle of water flowing throughout the night. Ehlers said such a precaution keeps some water moving in the tank and prevents it from freezing completely. Partial freezing is common in any water tower, according to Webster.

The water tower was last repainted by McGuire Iron of Sioux City, S.D., which is now under new management, Ehlers said. Ehlers said the board withheld $12,000 in payments — reflecting half the cost — to the company because its work was unsatisfactory, which the new management has accepted. Ehlers said it was the extremely cold winter of 2017-18 that caused the paint to come off in large sheets.

Webster also said that about 38 pounds of pressure is the maximum the tower is capable of providing, and it routinely produces 36 pounds. Webster said any work to increase it, even to just 45 pounds, would start blowing water lines.

Ehlers agreed that increasing pressure before installing new water lines would be like “putting the egg before the chicken.”

Better water service means much higher bills
There was a consensus among those present that higher water bills would be acceptable if they received improved water as a result.

“We are putting money into an older tower that we shouldn’t be doing,” said one resident.

Board member J.B. Deffenbaugh said “water bills will still go up and a lot more than $32.” Deffenbaugh suggested that for every person who was willing to pay more to get more, there would be two others who would protest any billing increase due to being on a fixed income or other financial constraint.

“Right now we are just barely making it,” Ehlers said of water funding. Ehlers emphasized there are no reserves.

Resident Robert Swearingen said the board should be accumulating money for future repairs, even if it means raising water rates.

After listening and responding to 1 1/2 hours of public comments, board members voted unanimously in favor of Deffenbaugh’s motion to determine the cost of postponing or terminating the current contract for repainting the water tower in order to investigate other possibilities.

Ehlers said alternatives, including any offered by EJ Water Cooperative, would be discussed at the board’s next regular meeting on April 9 or at a special meeting, if needed.

The board then completed the regular portion of its agenda in about 25 minutes, taking no action other than routine reports and bill approvals.

Location (3):Local, Elliott, Ford County

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