Fort Payne eyes sewer, sanitation rate hikes

The Fort Payne City Council held what will likely be its final meeting before adopting a budget Tuesday.

The Council is expected to address a $25,000 budget shortfall by passing ordinances to increase sewer and sanitation rates by 3% annually while also making a variety of cuts to be in a position to give cost-of-living adjustments to city employees and absorb a 5.5% hike in their insurance premiums.

“Our number one asset is our employees,” said Mayor Brian Baine.

Council President Walter Watson urged the group to follow Baine’s lead as the mayor starts the relationship with city employees.

Council member Phillip Smith hypothesized that if the cost of living adjustments were put off a year, the resulting surplus could make fire department salaries more equitable to police salaries and help pay for two new officers needed to patrol Lookout Mountain.

City Treasurer Tricia Clinton-Dunne explained that failing to keep the pay adjustments and absorb the insurance hikes would essentially lower employee wages in each paycheck.

Watson clarified the city is not “broke” and the financial shortfall is not the fault of the previous council. Instead, Fort Payne is “trying to adjust our trajectory and get in a much better position next year.”

City departments that offer money-making services were tasked with generating more revenue for the city to operate.

Patrick Dunne and Michael Evett, who manage the Sanitation and Sewer departments, joined in on the virtual meeting, explaining their rates and services. It would take eight years of annual 3% adjustments to match the $18.40 that county residents pay on average for a similar service.

The impact of a 3% rate hike on the average resident would be an additional $1.07 appearing on the monthly bill while businesses would pay $2.40 more, on average, per month for sewer and dumpster service.

Unless the city acts, the Sanitation Department may have to reduce the frequency of pickups or discontinue the free pick-up of leaves, limbs, and trimmings from dead trees. This service provides a convenient alternative to citizens personally hauling such materials to the Landfill. The city has acquired eight additional roll-off containers – the first new ones since 1998 -- which also generate revenue. Dunne said, “Even if we adjust those rates per cubic yard, we will be woefully below what everyone else charges. We’re the only ones who provide this within the city limits. It behooves us to increase the price at a reasonable rate.”

As part of overall cost-cutting, the Council also took another look at various funding to different organizations, including yearly contributions to the Fort Payne Board of Education to help teachers and buy school supplies. Council members are proposing a slight increase in the money given to teachers while Baine recommended putting the impetus for raising the rest of the money on local civic clubs.

Clinton-Dunne said appropriations started at $806,750 but were trimmed down to $720,000. Watson said no one should expect appropriations to automatically happen every year.

“It’s great to do when there’s a budget surplus, but we’ve got to take care of our own house first. Nobody can say we don’t help the schools. In the last four months, we’ve built turn lanes and draining pipes for the new school and done paving. We always help our schools. But that $150,000 can be better utilized hiring more officers for our police department.”

Council President Pro Tem Lynn Brewer said the city’s giving must adjust based on conditions, but she would like to see it happen again should funds become available. There is some question of how much may be generated by negotiating rent on the county health department building. Brewer spoke with a representative from the Depot Museum and recommended they only cut its funding by $10,000 instead of the proposed $15,000 cut. The city will likely eliminate some jobs or transfer staff to other departments.

Council member Johnny Eberhart suggested there were some projects that could be postponed to save money. Council member John Smith said several purchases are critical to building the kind of infrastructure that leads to economic development and job creation.

The adjustments and budget are expected to be adopted at Tuesday’s Council meeting at 12:30 p.m., live-streamed on FPTV.

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