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Cliff Williams / The Outlook Alexander City Mayor Woody Baird speaks at Monday’s council meeting where sewer rates were doubled and ways for automatic rate increases for sewer and gas were passed.

Nobody wanted to do it but all members of the Alexander City City Council said sewer increases and cuts in the city’s budget including appropriations was necessary for the city to move forward.

Monday night the city council passed ordinances to double sewer rates starting Jan. 1 and increase by 7% for the next four years going forward. The ordinance also gives the utility supervisor appointed by the council to increase the rates up to 7% in a year. The council also passed a budget that cut appropriations to Alexander City Schools, the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce and events such as Jazz Fest.

“You can’t get blood from a turnip,” council president Buffy Colvin said. “We are using what we have to try and help keep the city going until we see better days. We do foresee better days, it's just a matter of getting there.”

The council is mostly the same as what was elected five years ago. Councilmembers said they were unaware of the city’s finances but information put before councilmembers in the last few months has enlightened them.

“We didn’t have the luxury the first four years to have our audits to give us some form of a mirror or something to kind of look at and see how we are doing year to year,” councilmember Eric Brown said. “Unfortunately we found that things were not as good as we would have liked. In order to make the ship right, we had to make hard decisions especially on the governmental side.”

One of those decisions was to offer buyouts to city employees with 25 years of service to the city. Those with 25 years of service were offered $15,000 and $250 per year of service to retire. Those 60 and older with 25 years of service were also given the option of the city paying health insurance for upto five years for the employee or 50% of family coverage in addition to the cash option. The move will save the city money.

Some argued it would cut too heavily in the police and fire departments.

“I had several phone calls about the early retirement program, especially with positions in the police and fire department,” councilmember Chris Brown said. “Those positions are not being defunded. Those positions are going to be replaced.”

Brown said the first ideas of the retirement buyout had most of the positions not being back filled but the council had input in the plan before it approved the buyout.

“As we discussed and talked and the mayor worked with both chiefs, those positions are going to be backfilled,” Brown said. “I think I can speak for all of us, at no point were we defunding our safety for our citizens.

“When and how quickly depends on applications and the process the chiefs will work with the mayor and work through.”

Councilmember Jimmy Keel said many cuts were made across city operations so it was part of the savings plan before making cuts to appropriations. Those cuts also hit tourism and have the chance of affecting sponsoring fishing tournaments. Keel said he will work hard to make sure the fishing tournaments occur.

“We are not canceling any fishing tournaments,” Keel said. “Our mayor and finance director are engaged in making sure we relook at chamber business as it relates to March of 2020 to make sure we have the funds to keep our fishing tournaments going. We love those and want to keep them in Alexander City and not wanting to do anything to cut those out.”

Keel grew up fishing the waters of Lake Martin and has experienced fishing tournaments on other lakes.

“Nobody knows more about fishing tournaments than I do,” Keel said. “I have fished all over the Southeast, won a lot of tournaments. Nobody knows how important it is to the city and the lodging tax than I do.

“There are other ways to help fund the fishing tournaments. I was in the bait and tackle business. I donated a lot to advertisements of these fishing tournaments. The last person to quit screaming will be me if these tournaments are not funded. If that does happen, you will hear a lot more out of me than you do now.”

The sewer rate increases were necessary according to the council and Mayor Woody Baird to invest in the city’s infrastructure and to protect city services going forward. The rate changes will affect everyone.

“Nobody likes for any rates to go up,” councilmember Eric Brown said. “Not any of us are exempt from these rates going up. We are voting for our rates to go up as well.

It is something that is long needed and because of the lack of investing in our infrastructure. Our infrastructure is in dire need.”

Colvin said the rate increases will help fund infrastructure needs especially in sewer to avoid possible state or federal takeover of the sewer system.

“What scares me is if you start hearing the letters EPA, ADEM,” Colvin said. “That lets you know once they get involved, they pretty much take over. They are fixing it and telling us what it costs.

We got to make sure we keep our stuff together.”

Councilmember Bobby Tapley was the only no vote on rate increases. All six members of the council approved the budget which was hinged on the rate increases in sewer and gas.

Baird said he was happy to see the budget pass in September as it will aid in seeking grants and low-interest loans the city qualifies for from the state as it waits for audits to be completed.

“We needed this so much,” Baird said. “We have a (state revolving fund) application with ADEM on the sewer line for the graphite plant that we are almost finalized with and we had to have this budget to put in there. Then we will apply for another in January.

“Our rates are so low that they were like if you aren’t going to help yourself, we can’t help you. We have to increase the rates to get the grants.”

Hardy said this budgeting process has enlightened the council about the city’s finances thanks to the detail provided, especially in the budget by city finance director Romy Stamps and the mayor. But the valued information made the decision made by the council the best choice.

“Obviously nobody likes to hear the words cutting or getting less funding than what you received previously,” Hardy said. “I’m of the belief that if you have car trouble then you would ask the mechanic.

“I’m not the best person to talk about municipal finances so we have to go with our appointed finance director who has presented us a budget that allows us to get some breathing room in the short term so that in the long term we get to fund things appropriately as well as take care of some our capital investment needs.

“I know this is a tough pill to swallow. It is not something that we wanted to do. Again for the long-term positioning of the city’s finances it was the necessary choice to be made.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.

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