August 28, 2013

The water effect

An election is dividing voters, but there's more to the future of Chickasha's water than a 3/4 cent tax

James Bright, Managing Editor,
The Express-Star


Regardless of whether a 3/4 cent capital improvement sales tax is continued or defeated on Sept. 10, the issues facing Chickasha's water system will last, and require more action and money to be fixed.

The tax in its current incarnation is expected to produce $24 million over the next 10 years. Mayor Hank Ross said the city plans to spend $7 million of that on the city's Phase 1 water plan, which will replace clear water towers in the treatment plant. From here, the city will look to renew the same CIP tax in 10 years, which will take them to phase 2, and the complete restructure of the water treatment plant, but this will not satiate Mark Keeling, or the TEA Party. 

Last year the city invested in a study, which showed a complete $150 million overhaul in the next 30 years of the city's water infrastructure is  needed to combat problems with the water's taste, smell and appearance, according to Ross. Rate increases and bond issues will have to be looked at, as well as other possible taxes. Millions of dollars will have to be spent on new waste water lines, drinking water lines and the line that connects Chickasha to its reservoir, Ft. Cobb Lake. 

The CIP tax renewal is only step one. 

 "For the first time in the last 30 years this council is not just kicking the can down the road," Ross said. "We have a plan." 

Keeling said he has not seen a master plan for the city's water, and although he has seen the study Ross referred to, he's unsure if it is enough. 

"I'm no expert in the study," he said. "The tax is not a rainy day fund for problems that occur over time. Hank (Ross) is going to fix the parks and downtown before he does anything with water." 

Debate over the renewal has surged in the recent weeks. 

The city wants to keep the tax unrestricted, so the revenue it generates can go toward water, streets and sewers, where as the Grady County TEA Party, and several of its members have asked for the money to be earmarked almost  exclusively for water to combat its taste, smell and appearance. 

The reality is, no matter which side comes out victorious, the issues that the TEA Party  has expressed issues with in regards to Chickasha's water are here to stay. 

Keeling likened the tax to a blank check. Previously renewals of the tax have been used to fund parks and recreation and Keeling said he could see the same thing happen here. 

Ideally, Keeling said he'd like to see the tax voted down and brought back as a 1/4, or 1/8 cent sales tax for five years, tagged strictly for water. 

"I'll buy it for five years," he said. "We've done this for 20 years with no results. Over the last 10 years, the city has only used 26 percent of that tax money for water, our most important issue." 

Despite Keeling's comments, Ross contests a large portion of the tax revenue will go toward starting the process of replacing water infrastructure. However, without this tax, there are virtually no other sources of revenue to repair sewage and roads. 

"We will be funding water repairs, but we will also be using it for our street overlay projects," said Ross. "Over the past few years, we have spent $400,000 or $500,000 a year on our streets and we want to double or triple that for the next few years to bring our streets up to snuff." 

Keeling said he considers water and sewage issues to be one in the same, even though earmarking the tax strictly for water would take money from sewage infrastructure. 

"I put taste, smell, color and drainage as water issues, just like I do flooding. It's all water," he said. 

As for roads, Keeling said money generated from other revenue sources, including mineral leases around Lake Chickasha, could be used to supplement that cost. 

Despite the ongoing debate, there are a few reasons to rejoice in Chickasha's current water situation, said Ross. 

"I have heard from a lot of people here who are very happy with our water," he said. "We have a water source until 2060 and there are many communities struggling to find water, but for us, that problem is solved."

As far as funding water improvements over the next 30 years, Ross said there could be a silver lining there too. 

"We are looking at a deal with other communities using the Ft. Cobb reservoir that would bring a new water line to us," he said. "We are tying to make this process the least expensive and most efficient possible."