Fillmore residents still asking questions about utilities

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

FILLMORE -- The Fillmore Town Council’s first regular meeting of 2018 ended with some unanswered questions regarding an issue that dominated 2017.

During public comments, a resident came forward to ask several questions about utilities, the bonds used to install them and the contractual agreement between Fillmore and Greencastle.

The council was able to answer most of these, but was unable to say whether Greencastle can raise its water rates without Fillmore’s approval and what specific purpose each bond had served.

The town has three bonds totaling $1.1 million and each at 4.5 percent interest: The first from 1999 for $292,000 with payments set to go out until 2039 and the second and third from 2004 for $656,000 and $127,965 with payments set to go out until 2044.

At some point the town defaulted on the third bond and has since been required to establish reserve accounts for water, sewer and stormwater funds.

Generally, the bonds were used to install a water and sewer system in Fillmore, connect it to Greencastle’s system and make repairs to the Fillmore system. The high utility rates, which have been a major complaint for residents and council members, pay in part for these bonds.

They also pay for use of Greencastle water. Residents and council members have since considered the benefits and cost of installing an independent system, but the idea has been dropped on the advice of Mary Hoover, rural development specialist of the USDA Rural Community Assistance Program (which holds the bonds), who said maintenance costs will eventually outweigh the benefits.

This past December, by Ordinance 2014-7, rates increased by $0.96 for water and $1.42 for sewer, bringing the minimum rate of any bill to $32.95 for water and $48.86 for sewer. The rates are set to increase again this December by $0.99 and $1.47, respectively.

All bills also receive a $1 stormwater fee to contribute to the stormwater reserve fund.

The ordinance does not provide for another rate increase in 2019.

In January 2017 unpaid bills totaled $65,211 and about $46,000 in June.

In December Clerk-Treasurer Gilson announced the town had received $22,768.89 in 2017 lien payments, $10,429.35 of which was sewer lien settlements collected this fall by the county.

Although remaining liens total $31,814.47, Clerk-Treasurer Gilson said with sheriff and commissioner’s sales the town will only collect about $19,757.13 of that figure.

Aside from high rates, the large amount of unpaid bills and liens is due in part to state law and the town’s billing process. Residents must be notified in writing and allowed to continue using services for 30 days before services can be disconnected.

In addition, according to Ordinance 2016-1, the town sends bills the 20th of each month, calls them due on the fifth and begins late fees on the sixth, bringing the total period of non-payment to 45 days.

In March Clerk-Treasurer Gilson introduced an ordinance designed to enforce prompt payment by disconnecting services immediately after 45 days, but the council did not approve it.

Unpaid bills are also a problem for property owners, as Fillmore ordinance states that landlords are responsible for bills and late fees when their tenants fail to pay.

In December two local landlords came forward with their concerns, but Gilson explained that late fees can be waived, and landlords can arrange to have their tenants’ services disconnected and set requirements for re-connecting.

Town Council President C. J. Huller had been optimistic that the USDA would allow the town to refinance the bonds, but a meeting with Rural Development Specialist Hoover has since revealed that the town’s accounts have only recently been set in order.

In other news:

-- County Zoning Laws: The council announced it would not be adopting Putnam County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) guidelines, an idea that had been brought forward in May 2017. The town had hoped to gain a seat on the board.

-- Fillmore Police Department: Town Marshal Darrell Bunten presented two quotes for a new police car, which he mentioned needing at the start of last year. The quotes are $29,000 for a Ford Taurus and $33,000 for an SUV. The council tabled a decision until Marshal Bunten hears from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.

-- Budget: After going two or three years without creating a new budget, the town is set to create one for 2019, which will include plans for projects like paving Putnam Street.

-- Truck Routes: After “numerous complaints” and “deterioration of the streets,” the council introduced Ordinance 2017-4 to regulate to movement of large vehicles on town streets.

The ordinance applies to vehicles that: Have more than six wheels and/or more than one rear axle; weigh more than 14,000 pounds empty or loaded; or semi-tractors of any kind.

The streets are: Cemetery Road from Main Street, Right of Way Road to Main Street and Main Street to Cemetery Road and Right of Way Road.

Violations carry a progressive penalty of $100 up to $500.

The ordinance passed in July, but is not effective until signs designating the routes have been posted. At the time, this was estimated to happen in a month or so. The council said it would look into the cost of installing the new signs and replacing all town signs.

The Fillmore Town Council’s next regular meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1 in the Fillmore Town Hall.

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