About Those Rate Increases, and KY3 Does an Awkward Face-Plant into Willard’s Pile of Poop
…but MoM still loves you, KY3
Below we’ll explore the Willard Board of Aldermen’s recent decision at their December 11 meeting to direct staff to write ordinances that would have resulted in a 10% rate hike to water and sewer rates on January 1st, how a 10% increase is likely only a starting point on the road to impending future hikes, how water and sewer customers weren’t adequately notified of the opportunity to comment on the proposed hikes, how the City planned to implement the hikes without the required statutory notice to its customers, along with also examining KY3’s inaccurate and surface-level-only reporting on the issue. But first, let’s quickly (and painfully) tear off a few old and sticky band-aids:
Sewer and water rates do need to increase and probably by a lot (I’ll explain why below).
Local elected officials, city staff, reporters, and myself all make mistakes. When we do, it doesn’t make us villains. Like everyone else, we also have the ‘Three Fs’—friends, family, and feelings. And yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be called to account for our mistakes.
Only part of the responsibility for the increases lies with Willard’s elected officials. Most of it lies with Federal Reserve and federal government monetary and fiscal policies respectively. Both sets of policies were already highly inflationary prior to 2020, but their negative effects on the buying power of money were greatly exacerbated by the government response to Covid 19. Stated differently, everything—replacement parts, labor, electricity, etc.—costs a lot more than it did just a few years ago.
Of the smaller share of responsibility that does lie with Willard’s elected officials, five of the six current board members have been aldermen for less than a year. The problems they’re tasked with correcting have accumulated over many years, not months. Much more of that share of the responsibility lies with past boards than it does the current one. As one attendee at the December 11 meeting put it, “If the stupid sons of bitches had any foresight, we wouldn’t be here.” Now, to some degree, I suppose that’s true—but even historically well-managed cities like Strafford are facing substantial rate increases.
Lastly, despite the interim city administrator mishandling the City’s responsibility to make the public aware of the December 11 hearings and despite her earlier intent to initiate the increases January 1 without the required statutory public notice, I still believe the interim CA and current Board are making a serious, albeit flawed effort to deal with a very big problem. In other words, they’ve made mistakes, but they’re trying, and I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees.
KY3 is on your side ALL, er…most of the time
Willard resident Angie Wilson attended the December 11 meeting and recorded audio on her phone of the public hearings and the Board’s accompanying discussions. Over the next few days, she grew increasingly concerned by the complete lack of attendance she’d witnessed at the hearings and with the realization that the Board fully intended for the hikes to take effect only three weeks later on January 1, 2024—hikes which are likely the largest one-time rate increases in Willard’s history—so she contacted KY3 News.
On December 18, an hour before being interviewed by KY3, Wilson shared with a reporter the audio recordings mentioned above. She also contacted another resident, Lisa Godfrey, to ask for permission to share Lisa’s contact information in case KY3 wanted to hear the perspective of someone who had not attended the meeting. Godfrey was later interviewed as well. But unlike Godfrey’s interview, Wilson’s interview never aired.
Now, if you’re a Willard resident or utility customer who pays exclusive attention to the corporate press and either watched or read KY3’s December 18th reporting about the “potential” increases, you’ve learned the following misinformation:
If approved, the rate increases won’t take effect until “spring 2024,” “next spring,” etc.
Utility customers only face “potential” rate increases
The “potential” sewer rate increase is mainly the fault of the processor of Willard’s wastewater, that is, Springfield
The interim CA always intended for there to be two “reads” of the ordinances to be held at two separate meetings a week and a half apart—the first, December 27, and the second, January 8
If approved, the rate increases were intended to take effect in February (and not January 1)
These “potential” increases must have been the only ones discussed at the December 11 meeting because no other potential future increases are mentioned
And to top it all off, if you’ve watched the video, what’s perhaps most concerning is the existence of a James-Bond-esque villainess named “GoldFinger”—er, I mean “GoldFryer,” who lives among Willard residents and appears to be spreading paranoid conspiracy theories about city government.
We’ll return to all the above—including the villainous Mrs. GoldFryer—further below.
The transcript and audio of the December 11 meeting
So did KY3’s reporting end up being in close agreement with the concerns that Wilson shared with the reporter about the December 11 meeting?
However, what KY3’s reporting did serve to accomplish was to unintentionally provide cover for the interim CA’s mistakes (we’ll get to those further below, too) and to make Mrs. Godfrey, a.k.a. Mrs. GoldFryer, look ridiculous. On the positive side, it did serve to at least make more residents aware of the “potential” increases—a task the City can’t seem to do itself, despite having the tools and the statutory responsibility to do so.
Though all of the discussion is eye-opening, you really only need to read the blue text on page two of the transcript or listen (you’ll need earbuds) to the first ninety seconds of part three of the audio to understand how the City initially planned to implement the rate increases on January 1. That is, until someone who “doesn’t even live in Willard” publicized their intent to do so.
FYI: “Stewart” is Interim CA Donna Stewart, “Baird” is recently-appointed Mayor Sam Baird. Biellier and Lancaster are alderwomen, and Hall, Smith, and Swatosh are aldermen. Applegate and Wilson are residents. “Ordinances” are municipal (city) laws.
The City (and KY3) versus the audio recording
It’s clear from both the transcript and the audio recording that on December 11, at the behest of the interim CA, the Board voted to direct staff to write ordinances that would, when passed, increase sewer and water rates by 10% starting January 1—not “in February” as claimed in the KY3 article, and certainly not in “spring 2024”—and that she planned for the Board to vote to approve those ordinances at their next meeting, that is, on December 27.
A few problems with that plan:
First, a proposed ordinance becomes law only after: A) a “first read” and a “second read,” B) the affirmative vote of the majority of the elected members of the Board, and C) the signature of the mayor. But although both reads may occur at a single meeting, it’s standard practice that if a proposed ordinance is controversial—and obviously these are—the two reads ought to occur at different meetings held on separate days. Though the interim CA told KY3 she’s planning to have the first read occur on December 27 and the second on January 8, she must have originally intended, per the meeting audio, for both reads to occur on December 27. That would have been the only possible way for both reads to happen before the ordinances went into effect January 1, 2024.
Second, Missouri law requires that the public be given at least thirty days’ notice of any Board-approved rate increase before that increase may take effect. The thirty-day clock begins ticking from the date of the passage of an ordinance for a rate increase, not from when a Board first started discussing an increase.
In other words, the City may not pass ordinances raising water and sewer rates on December 27, and then make the rate increases effective a mere five days later on January 1, 2024. Prior discussion of the rate increases, including those that occurred on December 11, do not count toward giving notice. Again, the clock for giving notice doesn’t start when rate increases are first discussed—it starts when the ordinances are passed. Nor may the Board pass a rate increase, make it effective soon thereafter, and claim the notice requirement will be satisfied because customers won’t receive their first bill until a month later.
Stated differently, the Board must first pass the ordinances, then the City is required by Missouri law to wait at least thirty days before the rate increases become effective. And, per the December 11 meeting audio, it’s clear the interim CA originally intended to ignore that requirement. Probably due to inexperience.
Third, Missouri law requires that a public hearing be held for any proposed rate increase. Now, if I were planning a big New Year’s Eve party, yet put the invitations in a drawer where none of my friends would bother to look, I’d be sadly ringing in the New Year by myself when none of them showed up. Notice of the public hearings was posted in the equivalent of “a drawer”—on the December 11 tentative meeting agenda—a place hardly any normal resident bothers to look. And even if one did, the relevant agenda items made no mention of how big the proposed increases were, nor of when they would take effect. And, not surprisingly, at the hearings no one showed up to speak.
At the December 11 meeting, the interim CA stated that she intended for there to be expanded public awareness of the hearings. Perhaps she did (and still does), but notice of those hearings hadn’t even been posted to the Public Hearings or Public Notices sections of the City website (and still isn’t). It hadn’t been mentioned on the utility bills for November that preceded the meeting. And it hadn’t been posted to an official City of Willard Facebook page—a highly useful tool the City does not have (or so they claim)—unlike every other municipality in Greene County.
As an aside, the City says it doesn’t have the staff to manage an official Facebook page. Yet when former mayor-then-alderman Corey Hendrickson resigned after entering into a plea agreement with the federal prosecutor on October 24, recently-appointed Interim CA Donna Stewart replaced him as moderator of Willard MO - City News & Issues.
That raises a few questions:
If the interim CA had time to moderate that Facebook page, one with 10,000 members, how did she not have time to moderate an official City of Willard Facebook page? And if City News & Issues hasn’t been serving as the de facto “official” Facebook page for the City of Willard, and she intended only to use her personal time to manage the page for her own enjoyment, then why, when asked by a resident if members (including me) who had been banned by Mr. Hendrickson could be reinstated, did the interim CA respond:
“I’ll need to ask the mayor.”
That is, then-newly-appointed Mayor Sam Baird.
But please understand, reader, that just because the City of Willard has no official Facebook page, that Willard MO - City News & Issues—despite being founded and moderated by an alderman, moderated by a mayor and an alderman, moderated by a mayor-turned-alderman, temporarily moderated by the interim CA herself (until I complained), and now moderated by the wife of an alderman—has never been used as the City of Willard’s de facto “official” Facebook page.
And, unlike a government entity’s official Facebook page where free speech must be allowed, the moderator(s) of City News & Issues may exercise the ban hammer at will—which includes blocking critics and criticism of the City of Willard and its officials.
Let’s not forget to return to the interviewee that KY3 mistakenly dubbed “GoldFryer”—a resident whose actual last name is not ‘GoldFryer’ but ‘Godfrey.’ KY3, by deciding to leave out any of the backstory of what had occurred at the December 11 meeting, and in juxtaposing Mrs. Godfrey’s concerns with the comments of composed Interim CA Donna Stewart, inadvertently made Mrs. Godfrey appear a bit unhinged. Personally, were I “Mrs. GoldFryer,” I’d be so peeved that I’d use my new superpowers as a Bond villain to leave KY3 far behind and relocate to another state (something I hear she fully intends to do).
Lastly, for anyone left confused by KY3’s article (or mine), the City now intends to make the rate increases effective in early February—not January 1 as originally planned, nor in “spring 2024” as claimed in KY3’s article. As a reminder, spring begins on March 19, not in early February. But talk of “spring” does lead us to what’s probably going to come as a shock to many:
After the City conducts a first-quarter rate study, additional increases, beyond those mentioned above, will likely occur in the spring. And, afterward, over the next few years, larger-than-normal annual increases are likely to follow.
THE BAD NEWS
If you listened to the above audio, you heard the interim CA mention “stepped increases” occurring annually over the next 3 to 5 years. So what would that look like?
Though I own a home in Willard, I don’t live there. Rather, I live in Strafford. Last summer, the City of Strafford began educating its customers about the dire need to increase sewer and water rates. They explained why those increases were necessary and held informational and public hearings. Strafford’s plan is here. It’s a series of proposed stepped increases to be implemented over the next five years.
So what are we facing in Strafford?
Well, by 2028, under the proposed plan, my water and sewer bill will increase by 87%—from roughly $72 now to $135 in 2028, and that’s before taxes. That’s a lot!
Those increases are necessary for several reasons, and something similar is very likely necessary in Willard.
First, like Strafford, Willard sends its sewage to Springfield’s Northwest Treatment Plant. Springfield, due to inflation and other factors, is raising the cost to process sewage by 8% every year for the next 5 years—a cumulative 40% increase. One-third of your utility bill pays for water; the other two-thirds, the largest share, pays for sewer. The cost of Springfield’s increase will be passed on to you. There are other costs associated with operating and maintaining Willard’s sewage system, so Springfield’s 40% rate hike by itself won’t cause a 40% increase in your sewer bill, but it will still be a substantial factor.
Second, like Strafford, Willard has “critical issues with aging infrastructure.” Some representative paraphrases and quotes from recent Board meetings:
Per Public Works Director Justin Sorgen, Willard’s sewer and water infrastructure is held together with “band-aids.” His crew “makes it work” but “everything we deal with is in a rough state.”
“We just put out fires and try to keep as many fires from starting as we can.”
Though I can’t remember which staff member said it, “The water system is on the verge of being inadequate.”
And, “Existing infrastructure will require years-long repairs.”
Per Alderwoman Joyce Lancaster, the City has continued to subsidize the Willard Parks Department by $2.5 million dollars over the past decade when, according to the now-13-year-old state audit from 2010, the City’s focus is supposed to be on infrastructure.
As a result “We’ve got water towers that we could spend $400k on right now. We have street issues and water/sewer issues that we're not getting taken care of.”
During summer months, the pumps for the water system run 18+ hours a day, and Willard must build an additional water tower/storage area to spread the demand.
And then there’s that broken force main issue
Bear in mind that none of the above speaks to the cost of any future growth; it’s only about maintaining what Willard currently has.
One other interesting factoid is that Strafford currently only has $100k in long-term debt; Willard has $6.5 million.
Third, that government-created inflation monster. When attending Board meetings, I cringe every time I hear the words “grant money.” Every cent of the money that municipalities and other entities collect in the form of grants from the federal government has been printed out of thin air, increasing the size of the money supply and further destroying the buying power of the existing money in circulation. And, as a result, prices rise in response in direct proportion to how much money the government prints and gives away. Yes, it’s great that the City received a $500k grant for the Better Together Playground, but the money being used for these projects is simply a hidden tax on you and your family that will eventually show up in the cost of housing, food, and everything else—including your utility bill.
Strafford arrived at their proposed schedule of stepped increases after having an outside firm conduct an engineering study of their infrastructure and after a rate study to determine whether present rates for water and sewer could support current and future needs. Given the increases in their proposed plan, the answer, obviously, was a resounding ‘No.’
Every year during their annual inspection of Willard’s water system, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources recommends that Willard conduct a rate study. Though Willard ordinances require an annual review of their rate schedule, I don’t believe an actual rate study has occurred in a very long time. I spent two days calling various state agencies to try to find the answer but came up empty-handed. All I really learned is that although various state agencies recommend rate studies, they don’t require them. I also learned that the Missouri Rural Water Association will perform rate studies for free.
But at least municipalities like Willard and Strafford are proposing annual stepped increases rather than hitting residents with a big one-time jump as St. Louis did in June when it raised rates a whopping 44%, or as Fort Smith, Arkansas, plans to do in 2024 by increasing their water rates by 50% along with a 0.5% tax that would be in effect for 20 years.
Another difference is that Strafford had not increased rates in a decade, whereas Willard has passed small increases every few years. But were those small increases enough to offset the burden that Strafford and many other municipalities are facing?
Given the explosion in the cost of parts, of labor, and other essential items, the much-needed and costly repairs to Willard’s infrastructure, and the Parks Department continuing to suck funds away from needed maintenance and improvements despite Director Jason Knight’s best efforts, I seriously doubt it and believe Willard’s customers are going to be in for a very unwelcome surprise after the rate study is completed early next year.
And what about businesses like the Washboard Cafe who practically live and breathe water? Well, they’ll likely bear a substantial cost, one their customers will ultimately pay.
As an alderman, I began warning a decade ago about an inflation spiral and the eventual effects of Board mismanagement on the water and sewer systems. The Board and others at that time had no interest in hearing my concerns or considering my suggestions. But I don’t really blame them; then as now, I’ve always been the odd man out.
Willard has a great public works department, but they cannot make up for the decisions made by past elected or appointed officials at the local, state, and federal levels. All they can do is apply band-aids, put out fires, and hope for better decisions to be made.
The current Board and interim CA seem to be making a serious effort to address those long-standing and worsening issues with water and sewer. And I know that at least some of the current Board members recognize the need for better communication.
Now more than ever, the City of Willard needs to do a much better job of providing channels of communication that directly connect to its citizens, and its Board needs to conduct its business the correct way, not “the Willard way.”
Wilson, after her failed effort to use KY3 to bring public awareness to what had happened at the December 11 meeting, echoed those sentiments when she shared with me her concerns and audio recording, stating:
“That's what keeps going through my mind right now. And that's why we feel disrespected. They don't feel like they have any duty to communicate what they're doing. [Communication] is just respectful to all Willard residents or property owners.”
As the chart below demonstrates, utility customers aren’t used to experiencing 10% rate hikes followed by additional increases a few months later. The City of Willard has a responsibility to make people aware of these issues and explain what’s going on. Expecting them to search for and decipher meeting agendas and minutes or to sit through hours-long board meetings to find out is unrealistic and antiquated.
Establish a newsletter—use bill stuffers—maintain a Facebook page—record your meetings.
Otherwise, the villainous Mrs. GoldFryer may one day return and smite this city into oblivion.