TOWER— City infrastructure and the cost of maintaining it was at the top of the city council agenda here on Monday. The council, at the recommendation of the city’s auditor, approved a …
TOWER— City infrastructure and the cost of maintaining it was at the top of the city council agenda here on Monday. The council, at the recommendation of the city’s auditor, approved a series of rate increases for water and sewer in an effort to close the gap between what the city’s water and sewer fund takes in through service fees and what it costs to operate and maintain its joint system with Breitung Township.
It’s an issue the city’s auditor has raised for several years. While the current fee structure narrowly covers the basic operating costs of the system, the auditor noted again this year that the city hasn’t been covering the cost of depreciation. According to the auditor, the city would need to raise its rates by about $212 annually, or $53 per quarter, to fully cover its costs. Council members weren’t willing to go that far, but the council did approve a series of increases over the next three years that will close more than 80 percent of the funding gap.
Water and sewer customers will see their rates jump by $10 per quarter effective for the remainder of 2020. That will jump by an additional five dollars per quarter in 2021 and an additional five dollars per quarter in 2022. That will increase the quarterly water and sewer bill for city residents from the current rate of $208.50 per quarter to $228.50 per quarter beginning in 2022.
The city will send a notice of the planned rate increase to customers, explaining the reasoning behind the increase.
In other infrastructure action, the council established a work group to develop a program for reducing inflow and infiltration of freshwater, often referred to as “I and I”, into the city’s sewer system. Clerk-Treasurer Victoria Ranua noted that one of the city’s primary functions is to provide adequate infrastructure to support the community and provide for future growth but said that’s an area where the city is currently falling short because of the lack of sewage treatment capacity. She said the I and I is forcing city residents to pay for treating freshwater that shouldn’t be part of the sewage flow and has also maxed out the capacity of the municipal sewage ponds.
“It’s really a major barrier to economic development,” said Ranua, since the city can’t approve any more hookups to the system until the capacity issue is resolved. City engineer Matt Bolf agreed and said the city has the choice of building new capacity, at a cost of millions of dollars, or trying to chip away at the I and I problem.
While I and I has been a longstanding issue for the city, the 2018 hookup of the Hoodoo Point Campground to the municipal sewage system significantly exacerbated the problem, said Ranua. Bolf agreed. “I would assume that the campground is a pretty big contributor to your I and I problem,” he said.
Bolf recommended that the city pursue a five-year plan with set goals for achieving reductions in I and I, which would include cleaning and televising about one-fifth of the city’s system every year to look for areas where freshwater is entering the system. The city’s maintenance staff has already begun inspecting manholes, which can also crack and allow freshwater into the system.
Maintenance director Ben Velcheff said that his department has already inspected 15 manholes so far this year, detecting leaks in eight of them.
Council member resignation
The council also declared a vacancy following the June 29 resignation of council member Rachel Beldo. Beldo, who had served as acting mayor as well as a council representative on the ambulance commission and Tower Economic Development Authority, gave no reason for her decision. On several occasions, however, she had expressed difficulty juggling her busy work schedule as a nurse practitioner with the demands of her council position.
The council will be advertising for a replacement for Beldo; the replacement councilor would serve until the November election. They expect to review applications and make a decision on that replacement at a special meeting set for Wednesday, Aug. 5.
The council also declared the need for a special election for the seats held by Beldo and Steve Abrahamson, who resigned from the council last year and was replaced by Mary Shedd. Both of those seats would be for a two-year term. The council will also have two four-year terms up for election in November.
In related action, the council approved a motion to appoint Dave Setterberg as acting mayor and noted that Mayor Orlyn Kringstad, who was the council alternate for TEDA, will fill Beldo’s TEDA seat for the time being.
In other action, the council approved leasing new quarters for paid on-call staff for the city’s ambulance service for one year. While the city is still unsure of the future of the paid on-call staffing model, Ambulance Director Dena Suihkonen told the council that paid on-call is needed as a stop-gap until the service can rebuild its paid per-call staffing levels. The number of paid per-call staff on the ambulance service dwindled steadily after the introduction of paid on-call staffing in 2018. Suihkonen acknowledged that only one paid on-call staff person was currently using the quarters, but said she was aware of other potential new recruits who might join and need quarters. She said she is hoping to hire new staff in order to limit everyone to 40 hours, to avoid exposing the city to overtime liability.
The rent for the new ambulance quarters will be substantially higher than the previous quarters, at $675 per month plus heat and electricity. Rent for the previous quarters was just $312.50 per month. Suihkonen suggested that the cost of heating the new house should be less because it is heated with propane and that the city will be able to take advantage of the city’s discounted propane rate. She said, also, that the city will not be paying for cable television at the new quarters, unlike at the former house, which was set up by the previous ambulance director.
The council also gave the green light for Suihkonen and Ranua to develop a job description for an ambulance supervisor position, which will assume some of the duties currently undertaken by the director. The ambulance service has been operating without the two assistant directors and a training officer, all of whom had been in place prior to the dismissal of the previous ambulance director in March. According to Ranua, the elimination of those positions has provided some budget flexibility, clearing the way for the hiring of a supervisor.
In fire department business, Ranua told the council that the current fire chief has been putting in far more hours than is commensurate with the level of pay in an effort to address a laundry list of maintenance issues that had been neglected for years at the fire hall and to establish an aggressive training schedule to get the several new recruits certified as firefighters. Ranua said she would try to bring more research on the topic to the next regular meeting for consideration by the council.
In other business, the council:
• Approved the construction of a new trailhead kiosk at the junction of Pine Street and the Mesabi Trail on the site of the former trail kiosk. Construction will be undertaken by volunteers, with input from TEDA, Friends of Vermilion Country School, the Wagoner Trails Club, the Mesabi Trail, the Penguins Snowmobile Club and the Tower Soudan Civic Club. Much of the funding for the project will come from a recent grant for the Ancient Cedar Forest Trail, which is currently under construction.
• Declared the fire department’s ladder truck to be excess property and approved advertising for its sale. Fire chief Paige Olson noted that the truck has not been well-maintained over the years and that parts for the vehicle are no longer available.
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