McCOOK, Nebraska -- The McCook City Council gave the go-ahead for increased water and sewer rates, but a proposal to include domestic partners on the city's health insurance plan was killed before it even made it to a vote Monday evening.
The increase in water and sewer rates will be effective Oct. 1, 2011, and was a result of the annual cash-flow analysis prepared by Public Financial Management.
A representative of the accounting firm recapped the analysis to council members during their regularly scheduled meeting at council chambers.
The 3- and 5-percent rate increases are projected to amount to an average of $14 annually on residential sewer bills and an average of $13 annually on residential water bills.
The increases approved by City Council did not come without criticism from McCook residents who packed council chambers. Citizens voiced their frustration, speaking out about the increasing number of people using the McCook food bank and one citizen saying, "people just aren't making it. We say we easily throw out a dollar a month, but the reality is a lot of people aren't throwing out a dollar a month. We are living pretty high on the hog and need to start reducing and paying our own bills. Stop the increases and get into these organizations and make some changes."
Another citizen immediately spoke up that a raise in the rates would decrease usage, which would short revenues even further, ending her comment with "you can't even drink the water."
Councillors responded that a million and a half of sales tax dollars had already been spent to pay down sewer and water rates. Councilman Jerry Calvin said "The sales tax dollars are for all citizens," saying that when it was voter approved, the intention was for more than just water and sewer rates.
McCook citizen Wayne Michaelis, former Red Willow County Commissioner, started off the citizen's forum by telling council members that he believed they were "always looking for ways to spend extra money instead of putting it towards water and sewer entities."
Michaelis also warned that the council had made a mistake by allowing for the removal of the new municipal facility's basement and potential storm-shelter. "Eventually you will cut so much you end up with an inferior product," he said.
Michaelis also drew attention to merit increases on the city employee pay-plan that he said are not discussed openly.
The pay-plan calls for merit and longevity increases to employees' pay that are in addition to the annual across-the-board pay raises that the council has approved. Michaelis said the merit increases should be for performance above and beyond an employee's job description and not just given out automatically.
The comments from Michaelis drew applause from the crowd of approximately 40 in attendance, council members offered no response.
Michaelis was followed by McCook citizen Gene Morris of Apache Drive. Morris started by saying he had lived in McCook for six years and has spoken with Public Works Director Kyle Potthoff every year about rain water regularly washing a nearby alley into his driveway. He said the city needed to address existing issues such as this one and criticized the council's spending habits, adding that some people are having a tough time making ends meet.
"We don't think one to two percent is much, but think about it on your own household. It is time the city started looking at that before we added playground equipment and loan money. I didn't see anything about an internal audit," said Morris. Morris said be believed the city budget had enough surplus to cover the water and sewer rate increases, "it is easy to say that one to two percent wont hurt anyone. It is an injustice to the people here in McCook," Morris said in closing. The comments from Morris also drew applause from the crowd.
Tea Party activist Jerie Quinty of McCook was next to voice her concerns, she also criticized the water and sewer rate increases and said she was frustrated that the water and sewer debts were not being paid down aggressively enough. She added that the McCook Economic Development Corp. was also a concern. "We have not seen much return on our investment or from many of the things that have been done. The mindset we have in McCook is to spend all the federal money and grants we can. The taxpayers have to pay for that. What is it costing the people of the United States?" she said. Quinty also raised questions about the governor creating opportunities for cities to raise sales taxes and closed by saying she did not want the City Council to take advantage of that.
Mayor Dennis Berry said "We can't respond to that in this format," and closed the citizens' forum seeing no one else who wished to address the council.
Berry later explained to the Gazette that the citizen's forum is an opportunity for citizens to bring issues to the council that are not on the agenda and since those issues are not on the agenda, council members should refrain from commenting. Council members can ask that something be put on a future agenda for discussion. Berry said he believed it was good protocol because it allowed staff or council members time to get facts on a topic prior to commenting. He did add that at this time he did not believe the council had any intention of asking for a sales tax increase, but said that was just his view.
The proposal from Councilman Aaron Kircher to modify the city employee health plan to cover unmarried domestic partners of employees died for lack of having a second for the motion. Mayor Berry attempted to kill the ordinance at reading, urging councillors to "vote no on moral, fiscal and legal grounds," which drew applause from the crowd. Berry was informed by City Attorney Nate Schneider that only the title of the ordinance, as it related to the actual details of the ordinance, could be challenged prior to presentation. Upon approval of the title as read, Berry directed city staff to go through the ordinance procedures.
Councilman Mike Gonzales said he saw no reason to vote for the proposal, adding that no financial study had been done to estimate the fiscal impact on the city and saw no benefit to the city resulting from it.
Councilman Shane Hilker said he was personally in favor of the proposal, but said he was elected to represent the people and as a result could not vote in favor of the ordinance. Hilker's comment of being in favor on a personal level was as close to having support as the proposal came. No other comments in support for the proposal were aired, aside from those from its presenter Kircher.
Quinty said it would be asking tax payers to pay for "people shacking up," with Kircher responding that people were not "magically more committed if you're married. We are not going into changing times, times have changed."
Quinty responded by saying "but you're asking taxpayers to fund that," which was met by applause from those in attendance.
Quinty said she believed today's budget problems could be traced back to "entitlements caused by the breakdown of the American family and rewarding those for being single. We don't want to support that."
Don Klein of McCook challenged comments from Kircher that said several insurance companies were already offering the coverage. Klein said what Kircher had said was wrong, and that if it were correct, there would be open borders for insurance practice in Nebraska. Kircher responding by saying you could get non-resident agencies to participate and argued that he was licensed in health, life and other insurance coverage. Klein replied that what Kircher was refering to was already being challenged by federal law, and closed by saying it should not be something funded by the taxpayers.
Jerome Biegler of McCook spoke last, and saying he believed many of today's problems could be linked directly to the deterioration of the family. He asked councillors to lead the rest of the nation, in raising the family up. Biegler believed support of Kircher's proposal would further harm the family.
Councilman Kircher subsequently proposed the ordinance, which died after no other councilman would second his motion. His domestic partner proposal would have required that the employee and partner be unmarried; in a committed relationship continuously for at least one year and intend to continue the committed relationship indefinitely; not be involved in a committed relationship with any other person; maintained a common residence for at least one year; are not blood relatives; and agree to provide proof of financial interdependence to the city in the form of joint checking accounts, utility bills, etc. ...
Kircher's failed proposal also would have required the employee to notify the city within 30 days if the relationship had and file the appropriate documentation for the termination of a committed relationship.
The ordinance would have required a signed, notarized affidavit from the employee, his or her partner and two witnesses and set a $1,000 fine for providing false information.
The first of three readings of an ordinance that would donate a city owned lot to the McCook Economic Development Corp. was approved. The lot is located at the corner of East Second Street and C Street and MEDC intends to develop the lot with an existing home at 516 Norris Ave., that was previously donated to them by Red Willow County. After relocating the home to its new lot, MEDC will make upgrades to it that include making it handicapped accessible, as well as more energy efficient and safer.
Donation of the lot was proposed to be done by suspending the reading of the three ordinance rule, but after Councilman Hilker questioned why the three reading rule was being suspended and no one could give a solid answer, suspension of the rule was denied on a 2-3 vote of councillors.
A grant pertaining to the new wildlife fence project at McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport, that city staff sought pre-approval from council for, was approved contingent on review by City Attorney Nate Schneider. A second $20,615 grant offer from the Federal Aviation Administration was also accepted. That grant funding will cover reimbursement of expenses incurred by the city during the acquisition of avigational easements at the McCook airport.
The McCook Area Chamber of Commerce was granted a special liquor license for the Heritage Days mixer at McCook National Bank on Sept. 21, 2011. The chamber also requested use of Norris Park for their arts and crafts show, use of the bandshell and the closing of parts of Norris Avenue, the 700 block of East First Street and the 100 block of West G Street, during the Sept. 24-25 Heritage Days event. Council members questioned whether the chamber had contacted the residents on the 800 block of East First Street after an additional request to close that street was added. Concerns were raised pertaining to that area and an amendment was added to direct the chamber towards closing an additional block of H Street instead.
Other items on the consent and regular agenda:
* The fiscal year 2011-12 annual budget was approved for its second of three required readings. The employee classification pay plan was also approved for its first of three required readings for approval. The pay plan features a 2 percent cost of living increase for all city employees, in addition to merit and longevity increases. Police and fire personnel are not included in the plan, as they are negotiated separately through their respective unions.
* The Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program for the McCook airport was approved. According to the meeting agenda, the program ensures that disadvantaged business enterprises have an equal opportunity to receive and participate in Department of Transportation assisted contracts.
* The application for intercity bus assistance from Dashabout Shuttle was approved. The $96,023 service is funded through state and federal assistance and the city is used as a pass through for the funds.
* City staff was approved to offer Interstate Irrigation a $104,455 contract for water system improvements on East C Street, relocation of the sanitary sewer main for the new municipal facility and the addition of a sanitary sewer bypass line at Kelley Park.
* The request for proposals for engineering consulting services, for a East Seventh Street and Seminole project from East H Street to Park Avenue, was approved. The appointment of public works director Kyle Potthoff, city clerk Lea Ann Doak, public works supervisor Dob Neuhaus, in addition to one or two city council members, to the selection board for engineering consulting services for the project was also approved. No discussion took place as to whether specific council members were chosen.
* A resolution that adopted changes to the McCook Firefighters Pension Plan and Trust and the McCook Police Retirement Plan were approved.
* Rock N Horse lounge was granted a special liquor license for the Farm and Ranch Expo at Kiplinger Arena in November.
* Council members entered executive session pertaining to city manager applicants, as well as a strategy session with respect to collective bargaining with the police department's labor union.