City debates whether to reinstate discount for low-income seniors

Displeasure over last month’s hike in Apalachicola’s water and sewer bills boiled over at Tuesday’s meeting of the city commission.

Both City Administrator Lee Mathes and Mayor Van Johnson said their offices have been flooded with complaints over the rate increase, which was unanimously approved last month by commissioners.

But it was the appearance of Lillie Turrell and Sonny Turrell, during a discussion over reinstating a senior citizen discount, that gave voice to that anger.

“This is wrong, we don’t need a hardship,” said Lillie Turrell, noting that her bill had gone up from about $55 to $85, and another man she knows had his jump from $44 to $109.

“That’s completely wrong,” she said. “I got to buy water to drink. I’m diabetic and I got to have water and I’m going to drink some water. I’m buying water (from the city) that I can do nothing but bathe in.

“Mayor Van, this is a bit much for us,” she said. “Come on, give us a break.”

Johnson, a proponent of the current rate increase after he two years ago rejected an appeal from the state to raise them, told Lille Turrell the city’s current default on a revolving loan with the state gave him and his fellow commissioners no choice. The city is at least $250,000 in arrears on a $4 million loan balance with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“We know this and we feel this,” he told Lillie Turrell. “Two years ago when administrators came to us, we refused (to raise rates) because of the burden put on you. And now we’re in default.

“The commission has to do something,” he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to be faced with the state (taking over the city’s water and sewer system). They’re going to run the city and they’re going to up the bills.

“Had we done this two years ago, when they suggested it, we would never have defaulted,” Johnson said. “We can’t get any money from the state to fix existing problems until we come out of default.”

The mayor detailed how the city agreed several years ago to take out the loan to fund improvements to the wastewater treatment system, with regular payments coming out of interest on a lump sum placed in an escrow account.

But, he said, when interest rates plummeted during the last recession, there were no longer sufficient funds to make regular payments, and the state pressed for the city to increase rates to meet its obligation.

“We live in this community, we know you guys, but at the same time, what do we do?” he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Sonny Turrell said his bill jumped from $68 to $129, which was far in excess of what Mathes estimated would be a roughly $18 to $22 increase for most seniors.

“That may be specific to your case, that shouldn’t be,” Johnson told Sonny Turrell. “Cases like that, we need to look at, on an individual basis.”

Mathes said that with last month being so cold, people may have used more water than usual by running the tap so that pipes didn’t freeze.

Under questioning from Commissioner Anita Grove, she said the roughly 1,200 state-of-the-art meters the city installed last spring are very precise, able to take exact measurements down to hourly usage.

“The old meters were out of calibration,” said the mayor. “They hadn’t been changed since the 1970s. We’re getting a truer picture of what people are actually using.”

 

Discounts for seniors, the disabled, debated

 

The discussion came amidst a presentation by Mathes on a proposal to restore a senior citizen discount, as well as add one for the disabled. The previous senior discount, in which payments were waived on the first 6,000 gallons of usage, was eliminated when the rate hikes were approved. At last month’s meeting, Commissioner Brenda Ash requested Mathes take a look at how neighboring cities and towns were handling it.

“I have been uncomfortable with the affect on senior citizens who have limited income,” said Ash. “Now there is no senior rate anymore.”

Mathes suggested that rather than give the discount to all seniors age 62 and older, as the previous policy had done, the discount criteria would require seniors be approved for the $50,000 homestead exemption and senior exemption on their property taxes, be fulltime residents of Apalachicola or the service area, be at least age 65, and provide proof that their annual adjusted household income does not exceed $29,000, the benchmark established by the county property appraiser’s office.

“The only city I could find that has anything comparable was Mexico Beach,” she said.

The disability discount would apply to all full-time residents of the entire service area who have been approved for a disability exemption by the county property appraiser and who can show proof of disability.

The mayor voiced questions with enacting the discount, arguing the state had asked for, and obtained, a rate study, and that the city had to move forward on getting its loan balance out of default, or it would be at a disadvantage as it seeks future grants and loans from other agencies.

“I don’t know how the state would look at this,” said Johnson.

“It would only impact those who need it the most, that’s why we’re looking at ways we can help our senior citizen base. (The man who did the rate study) mentioned some communities offer a senior citizen discount rate. I thought it was necessary to look into that,” said Ash.

“Those communities don’t have a $4 million debt that’s in default by $250,000 or more,” replied Johnson. “Somebody’s’ going to have to have political will and do the right thing.”

Grove and Ash suggested the pool of senior citizens who had been receiving the discount, about 475, would likely be smaller under the proposed income requirements.

“There’s some pretty strict criteria with total household income that qualifies you for this senior exemption,” said Grove.

Apalachicola resident Creighton Brown suggested an option be added to the water and sewer bills that would give residents the option of donating to a fund to assist seniors and low-income residents with their bills.

The commission agreed to table the discount discussion until March, after seeing how the state viewed the discount as well as what effect it would have on revenue.

 

Postal woes extend late payment due date

 

After a postal snafu with last month’s bills, that appears to be rectified, Mathes said the late payment due date for this month’s bills has been extended to Friday, Feb. 16. She said no penalties would be assessed until after that date.

At the January meeting, Mathes told commissioners that she had “a stack that thick” of bills, about a third of the 2,000 sent out, that were sent back by the postal service due to problems with the post office in Tallahassee.

“We meet all the standards, we meet every requirement,” she said. “The post office has a machine that eats them up. They refuse to buy a new machine. When they run our utility bills through their machine, it destroys them.”

Mathes said a new machine would cost the city $4,500. Commissioner Jimmy Elliott, a retired postal service employee retired after 40 years, suggested the bills be printed on heavier stock, and that the length of the cards be adjusted to better fit the machine.

Mathes told commissioners Tuesday that the problem has not reoccurred during this month’s billing.