OTTUMWA — Controversial topics were on Tuesday’s council agenda.
A proposal to replace the local option sales tax of 1 cent with a 3% franchise fee on electricity and natural gas bills within the town limits of Ottumwa has again sparked discussions. In the end, the board decided that Tuesday night was not the right time.
In a presentation to council, City Administrator Phil Rath argued that now was the right time for the city to pursue this ordinance. He cited the history of the city’s recent property tax rate drop as one of the reasons. While the fees are expected to increase Ottumwa’s average utility bill by about $4.30 per month, Rath argued that the proposed property tax decrease would offset or reduce the impact of the fees in most cases. .
The charges are being sued because the city has cut 26 jobs over the past decade and property valuations are rising more slowly than authorities had hoped. Although the city’s total tax rate has declined over the past two years, it remains one of the highest in the state.
Rath touted franchise fees as the best option for increasing the city’s revenue so it can continue to provide, and perhaps improve, the services it provides today.
“There just isn’t enough revenue to pay for all these services,” Rath said. The city has undertaken some budget strategies such as deferring capital improvements or going into debt to pay for items it once used the general fund for, but these strategies only work for so long and can cause bigger problems later. .
As costs have risen more than 9% year over year, Councilman Marc Roe agreed that now was not the right time to implement the fee. But, he said, eventually revenues will have to increase or the services offered will have to change.
“The public needs to understand that if we don’t find a way to increase revenue, we’ll probably get away with it, but we’ll get away with a lot less than what we have now,” Roe said. “We’re not going to have the same level of community service that everyone deserves and demands. It just won’t be there because the costs will go up.”
Hearing from citizens about those living on fixed incomes who are already struggling month to month to pay their bills, Councilor Sandra Pope said she was one of that crowd.
“Somewhere down the line, something is going to have to change,” she admitted.
Wapello County resident and supervisor Brian Morgan argued that despite Rath’s observation, now is not the time. He says residents and business owners are dealing with 40-year-old high inflation, high gas prices and other increased expenses that are already enough of a problem.
He said requests for property tax suspensions from county residents were on the rise.
“Please reconsider now,” Morgan said. “Let’s look at the road and hope that in a year, two years, things will be better for all of us.”
There was a host of fee-related actions on the agenda, but the board’s combined action is essentially delaying fee progress for the time being. It’s unclear when the council will be able to return to the discussion.
The council also made final passage of the city’s new animal ordinance.
The ordinance, which makes multiple changes to the city’s animal code, has garnered considerable attention, primarily due to requested changes to the city’s longstanding ban on pit bulls. The ban remained in place in the amended order.
Councilor Cara Galloway said she hopes the conversation doesn’t stop and that the city will undertake efforts through social media to promote the many other changes contained in the ordinance.
“Hopefully after tonight the conversation doesn’t stop,” the first-term board member said. “I hope we continue to have conversations about this.”
The pope said the ordinance had “room for manoeuvre” to grow. The revised text of the ordinance will be available in full on the city’s website in the near future. While the third and final vote has taken place, the ordinance will not be in effect until it is published in the city’s official newspaper, The Ottumwa Courier.
The third and final vote was 4-1, with Galloway voting no.
Chad Drury, staff writer for Ottumwa Courier, contributed to this report.