Syracuse holds public hearing on rate increases, budget

Syracuse Town Council members prepare and chat before Tuesday night’s meeting. Photo by Denise Fedorow.

Times-Union Correspondent

SYRACUSE – The public had an opportunity to let their views be known at Tuesday’s Syracuse council meeting and at least one woman did, regarding the utility rate increases.

Michelle Owens began her questions right away in the public comment portion of the meeting and town attorney Jay Rigdon suggested the council just open the public hearing on the matter, which they did after quickly approving the minutes and claims.

Owens wanted to know why the council chose the maximum rate instead of slowly raising the sewer rates. Robert Reynolds of London Witte Group (LWG), who prepared the rate study, answered. He explained he gave the council three scenarios for the five-year plan — the first was a cash plan and the other two required financing.

Reynolds admitted the last two “would mean a lower rate for taxpayers but a higher cost because of the cost of borrowing so overall it would be more expensive.”

Owens said the route chosen meant a 42% increase. Reynolds said the average user would see a rate increase of $15.63. She questioned why they didn’t just tier the rate increase.

Reynolds responded, “Because we wouldn’t have the money for the projects. There are situations for phase-ins, but this is more of a cash flow issue that needs to be dealt with now.”

He told her the utility operated on a $91,000 deficit last year. Owens said she understood the infrastructure was as old as 1902 and asked if after it is replaced whether they expect a rate reduction. Reynolds said he couldn’t speak to that and there was much discussion from the council and department heads about skyrocketing prices on projects.

She questioned the $1.2 million balance in the wastewater fund and Reynolds gave her specifics of how that money was already earmarked for debts already owed. He said the amount available for projects would be approximately $468,000.

“To a utility project that wouldn’t even cover one emergency,” Reynolds said.

Owens responded, “A 42% increase is significant for some people here — that’s close to 50% — and could be a hardship. I would’ve hoped this would’ve been looked at 10 years ago. If the infrastructure is crumbling now it had to be bad then, too.”

Council member Larry Siegel said it was looked at 10 years ago. “We try to keep rates down and borrow instead of passing onto the taxpayer, but we can’t keep running under costs.”

Reynolds said the average user of 3,000 gallons currently pays $37.07 and that bill will go up to $52.70. Siegel mentioned rates in nearby towns which are higher.

“It’s tough to be us and have to do what we do and even with this we have one of the lowest rates around,” Siegel said.

They opened the public hearing on the water rate ordinance and Owens questioned why unmetered rates were going down and metered rates were going up 23%. They decided they didn’t have any unmetered service and it probably shouldn’t be in the ordinance — even the fire station, street department and utilities have meters and pay for their water.

She also questioned why it said the rates would increase by 21.35% but actually went up 23%. Reynold said it was probably a rounding-up issue. In a previous meeting, Reynolds said a minimum user of 2,000 gallons currently pays $18.96 and that will go up $4.03 to $22.93 and an average user of 3,000 gallons currently pay $22.64 and that will increase by $4.82 to $27.64.

Council member Nathan Scherer said, “We keep hearing ‘I want low taxes’ but there’s eventually a cost for that. Preventive maintenance is a big deal and it’s prudent to keep up with that.”

Council member Bill Musser praised public works Superintendent Mark Aurich and Town Manager David Wilkinson and said, “You can feel good that we’re doing the absolute best that we can do to hold – the cost but yet fix a lot of things that must be fixed for the future.”

2024 Budget
There was no comment on the proposed 2021 budget of $6,940,799. That includes a general fund of $2,504,226, $70,000 for local roads and streets, $1,095,300 in the motor vehicle highway fund and $648,580 in parks.

This year’s budget was $6,320,041 so this year’s has a proposed increase of $620,758. The clerk didn’t have the estimated tax rate for 2024 was $0.8195 per $1,000 assessed value. Last year’s tax rate was $0.8785 per $1,000 assessed value.

No action was taken by the council on the budget, but they plan to adopt it at the October meeting.

Annexation Discussion
Under old business Siegel brought up extending utilities without annexation, specifically for the proposed RV park Steve Showalter plans to develop. Showalter said he was willing to be annexed but didn’t think it was possible, so the council previously agreed to extend the utilities to him regardless.

Siegel said things have changed since the proposed changes to the legislation didn’t pass. They called Steve Unger of Bose McKinney and Evans to ask questions and get clarifications.

Unger said, “I advise all municipalities not to extend utilities without annexation because if you extend facilities now you may never get the annexation in the future.”

Scherer asked if there’s no option for annexation how is a town supposed to grow? Unger said that’s the problem with the legislation and Siegel said, “That’s why we have to make the most of every opportunity.”

Council member Paul Stoelting said they thought annexation wasn’t possible in this case. Unger offered a couple of possible ways it could and later said if an annexed property is assessed agricultural it would not pay municipal rates until it was developed so it wouldn’t impact those property owners’ tax rates.

The council agreed to have Unger start the process of annexation for that property.
Wilkinson wanted direction from the council on what to tell developers and was instructed that the council does not want to extend utilities without annexation unless under special circumstances, which they would take under consideration.

There was disagreement about whether that needed to be in resolution form, but the majority of the council felt that the verbal instruction was enough.

In other business:
•A representative from Indiana Telephone Network sought permission to rent space on the town’s older water tower for 6 small dishes and 5 antennae. He said they had zoning approval to construct a tower downtown but preferred not to. After discussion, the council agreed to allow it with David and Mark working out details.

• Tabled ordinance 2023-07 for outdoor dining for some language changes.

• Approved appointing Kristen Abbs to the park board serving the remainder of Jamie Beer’s term who passed away in the spring. The term will end in December 2024.

• Heard they are re-engineering the lift station project as the previous plan would have too much of an impact on residents and the Oakwood Inn.

• Approved fire equipment purchases from Hoosier Fire Equipment at a cost of $8500.
• Approved painting and flooring for the new building by the fire station for offices, etc. at a cost not to exceed $15,000.