City officials and Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. stressed cost increases as the reason for water and sewer fee hikes and JATRAN employee cuts yesterday at Jackson City Council session.
Jackson Public Works Deputy Director David Willis presented evidence for the city's need to raise water and sewer rates to offset rising electricity and chemical costs related to water and sewer processing.
"Costs have gone up," Willis said during a hearing on a proposed 13 percent hike in water fees and a 6 percent increase in sewer fees. "Electricity costs these days are about $4 million a year, and it costs us about $2 million in chemicals just to treat the water. These are fixed charges. We have to pay them, but if you don't increase revenue to deal with rising fixed charges they start to eat into the city's maintenance budget."
The Council's Water Ad Hoc Committee passed a city ordinance change allowing the increase, but the general City Council must also approve the ordinance. Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon said the council will vote on the ordinance at its Nov. 30 meeting.
Willis said the increases will also be used to help pay down $13 million in bond debt, which council members approved over the last six years, some of which pertained to water and sewer infrastructure repairs.
The deputy director said the city is planning to upgrade Jackson residents' water meters, beginning in 2012, which would allow more accurate measurements and remove the possibility of illegal water hook-ups. The meters, he said, would also alert residents of potential costly leaks in their water system.
"(The meters) can listen to the water going into your house," Willis explained, adding that water running during late hours when most people are asleep usually indicates the possibility of a leak.
Johnson said the increase amounted to an extra $5 per month for most residents, and said that the city was examining the possibility of turning water and sewer bills into a monthly bill rather than a two-month bill.
"Our billing system is outdated," Willis said, explaining that it was designed in 1972 to accommodate an archaic system.
After the water update, Johnson announced a proposal to cut city bus routes and lay off 21 JATRAN workers.
"This is probably an absolute thorn in the sides of most Council people," Ward 6 Councilman Tony Yarber said, in reaction to the proposal. "We're looking at the possibility of 21 people losing their jobs and services, and routes will be cut, which will impact people's ability to get to their destinations. Unlike the water and sewer hikes, this issue pulls more at the seat of your morality, because people who ride the bus have no option other than to ride the bus."
The Jackson Free Press reported last week that the city must pay $984,000 in back pay, vacation and other costs by January to JATRAN employees. The city must also pay wage increases that amount to an extra $560,000 in next year's city budget and in following budgets, for the city's 49 unionized bus drivers and its 14 maintenance employees.
The city's most recent collective-bargaining agreement with union bus drivers expired in 2007 without a new agreement to set pay wages over a set period of time. The city contracted McDonald Transit Management to run JATRAN, but McDonald Transit management failed to reach an agreement. The city has since replaced McDonald with Professional Transit Management--which also failed to reach an agreement with the union. Both parties appealed to Houston Impartial Arbitrator Diane Dunham Massey, and held a June 28 arbitration hearing on the issue. Johnson said last week that arbitration favored the union's side of the argument, and would have to find ways to finance it.
Yarber said he was nervous at Johnson's proposal to eliminate Saturday service and remove routes with low patronage, and said he wanted to look at contract proposals between the union and the city prior to the June arbitration.
"I'm interested in speaking with members of the union to see what other agreements were on the table prior to now. I'm not looking to undermine the mayor, but I'd like to know if there was a better option out there in an attempt to make an informed vote on this," Yarber said.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1208 President Al Burns said the union had attempted to broker a contract with the city that was considerably less expensive than the contract set through arbitration. "We had offered a better deal but the city refused to take it," Burns said.