New elected officials are wondering why the Hot Springs board would put a water rate hike on its agenda a week after the Nov. 8 election.
Dayton Myers, justice of the peace-elect for District 7, and Dudley Webb III, city manager-elect of District 4, said they organized a committee opposing the proposed $4 increase that would go into full effect next November. .
Myers said the committee hoped to convince the council to call a referendum, but was prepared to hold a citizen-initiated one if the ordinance passed on Tuesday.
The council passed the ordinance at its Tuesday evening meeting. Director Karen Garcia was the only dissenting voice.
Water tariffs became a salient issue during the November 8 elections. Most of the candidates for the four board seats have focused their campaigns on water rates and how the city plans to cover cost overruns on the Lake Ouachita water supply project. over $100 million.
The rate structure that came into effect in 2018 is used to fund the project, increasing base rates over a five-year period from $5 per month to $13.39 for residential customers within the city and 7. $50 to over $19 for out of town customers.
The short agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting that the city released two hours before polls close in the Nov. 8 election included the rate increase ordinance and an order allowing 45 million dollars of new debt for the procurement project. The city said bringing its Lake Ouachita allocation online would cost about $40 million more than expected.
“We think the timing is excruciating,” Myers said Tuesday. “A week ago was election day. They’re voting on a water rate hike, even though that was probably the biggest issue of the election cycle we just went through for city council.
“With inflation hitting the wallets of people living paycheck to paycheck, we want the public to be aware of this before anything happens. I think it’s a bad time to city council and city management.
Myers questioned putting the rate increase on the agenda for the third to last 2021-2022 board business meeting. Two of the seven directors will not be part of the 2023-24 board that will sit in January.
“I think the city government is not transparent,” Myers said. “Most of the public probably didn’t know until the article in the newspaper on Friday. We vote on it on Tuesday. The city is trying to push it through without having any input from the public.
“If one thing came out of last week’s election, it’s that we have a city divided on the issue of high water rates and how the city is dealing with it. I think the people of Hot Springs want more transparency.”
Myers said a rate increase would weigh more heavily on out-of-town customers. They pay a 50% bonus but are not represented on the board of directors. Prescriptions increase their base rate, or charge for the first 1,000 gallons of use, to $6.
“The fact that most of the people affected by this have absolutely no say in electing the people who make this decision is absolutely wrong to me,” he said. “We should have some type of government body separate from the city council that sets water rates. I don’t think city council members should be the ones to decide that.”
The Retail Water Suppliers Oversight Act, or Bill 605, passed by the Legislature in 2021, requires municipal water suppliers with 20% or more of their customers residing out of town to form a non-voting advisory committee that includes two residents of the unincorporated area.
The city has yet to form such a panel although more than half of its customers reside in the unincorporated area of Garland County. City manager Bill Burrough said last week that an advisory committee would soon be formed.
“I don’t think anyone is saying we have to stop the Lake Ouachita project,” Myers said. “I don’t think that’s the message. Is there a better way to pay for the cost overrun than to impose the cost of our city government’s mistakes on voters who can’t fault it .”
The city code allows 30 days to submit a petition to the referendum, with the 30 days beginning when the ordinance is passed. Signatures of registered city voters representing at least 15% of the total votes from the previous mayoral election are required.
Based on the 10,496 votes in last week’s mayoral race, more than 1,500 signatures would be needed. Myers said the committee is ready to start collecting signatures this morning.
“As soon as we receive a copy of the order to attach to the petition for signatures, we have it ready to go,” he said.