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VA City Council Meeting Gets Heated, Tempers Boil Over as Residents Lash Out Over Water Rates

The issue of increased water rates has been hot lava underneath the surface of Van Alstyne for nearly the past two months. A boost in the rate approved by the city council to help fix a deteriorating infrastructure has resulted in cries of gouging by some residents.

On Tuesday, that lava finally bubbled over as a packed community center took out its anger on city council members. What came out of this volatile setting was not of great solace to those seeking a change in their rates or even a refund stemming from their Oct. 1 water bill. The council voted 3-2 against repealing ordinance 699 which set the new water rates. In effect, this vote, which drew jeers from much of the gallery, shot down subsequent motions to reinstate the old water rates and refund “excess” money collected from the Oct. 1 billing onward.

Instead, Council unanimously approved a motion to set a workshop session to take another look at the rates. Councilman Billy Plake invited all those in attendance to this future workshop session to be set at a later date.

Prior to a vote being taken on the motion to repeal the ordinance residents spoke out from both sides of the fence. Justin Johnson, an 11-year resident of the town and an employee of the city’s public works department, was visibly emotional as he addressed Council and the gallery. He said he saw the issue from both sides but that something has to change and change soon.

“I’m trying to not get too mad, but for everybody in here, I know it’s terrible on everybody, but we need new water lines,” said Johnson, who also stated that he is not getting rich working for the city and has, in fact, taken a pay decrease in the past. “I know it’s not my fault or [Council’s] fault, it’s the past council. For everybody who says I got a pay raise, it’s not true. I don’t want my son paying higher water bills for us.” Johnson left the podium to a smattering of applause.

Hackberry Park Apartments property manager Ginny Hampton told Council that her business’ water bill doubled, effectively devaluing her business by more than $200,000.

“This affects every business in town,” said Hampton. “This isn’t just my business this affects; it’s every business in town.”

Resident Sherry Steffens was visibly agitated as she addressed Council, asking that a committee of between 15-25 residents be formed to present options to be put on a public ballot for a new water rate. She also presented to Mayor Teddie Ann Salmon a petition signed by Van Alstyne residents demanding the repeal of the new water rate ordinance.

Councilwoman Kaaren Teuber took her turn at the podium, stepping from behind the council table and speaking as a resident. She urged Council to repeal the ordinance, refund money collected after the rate increase and institute a hardship policy for those who have trouble paying their bills. On this last request she got her wish as Council later voted to establish a policy to give citizens who suffer a hardship the ability and right to extend payment without penalty or disconnection of service. City Attorney Julie Fort is to begin work on the wording of the policy.

Following public comments, council members got their say on the matter. The Council was, not surprisingly, split 3-2 on the issue with Teuber and Jim Smith for repealing the ordinance and Russell Moore, John Jennings and Billy Plake against.

In his comments, Plake reminded residents that they had two months’ worth of workshop sessions to come and give their input and not a single individual showed up to one of the six workshop sessions. Plake then touched on the fact that this council is having to make up for the lack of follow-through from previous councils.

Moore reminded residents that if the city does not start taking care of its infrastructure soon fines from the State of Texas will add up (the city has already had to pay a $38,000 fine stemming from a wastewater treatment plant) and that eventually the state could step in and set the rates for the city.

“We don’t want that,” said Moore. “And with a target on my head I’m going to tell you I think this is good for residents.”

Jennings said the time is now to get the house in order.

“This is not a question of how do we afford it; it’s a question of how do we continue to ignore it.”

Jennings also took on Hampton and Hackberry Park’s billing. Jennings said that using Hampton’s math regarding the business’ former bill and the number of tenants equated to each tenant paying an average of $44 for water, well below the rate other residents pay, and that an increase was warranted.

“We cannot afford to play [favorites] with any one group,” said Jennings.

Smith touched on his voting record in reference to the rate increase, stating that he did vote for the increase but that he did not vote for it to be retroactive (residents’ were billed for service prior to the date the rate was approved.)

“I don’t know anybody who voted to go retroactive 45 days on this bill,” stated Smith. “Yes we need a rate increase, but we need one that’s reasonable.”

The controversial water rates were not the only items of business on the council’s agenda on Tuesday night. Residents got good news as John Teel of the Grayson County Health Department stated that mosquito traps tested from Oct. 29 and Nov. 6 were negative for West Nile Virus. An earlier trap collected on Oct. 8 was a positive hit for the virus. More traps are being tested but Teel said he would not recommend the city spray for mosquitoes.

Once again, an effort to fill the seat of Jennings, —who had resigned but is legally bound to stay on Council until a replacement can be appointed — failed. Smith and Teuber were motioning for a vote to fill the spot, while Moore and Plake abstained, effective squashing the move. If no one is appointed to fill the seat Jennings will serve until May when his term is up.

Council unanimously approved a motion to authorize the mayor to sign an interlocal agreement with the City of Howe to provide EMS service and a services agreement with the Grayson County Library. Council also authorized the city manager to sign an electric services agreement with Reliant. The new agreement will be for a 60-month term at a rate of .4896 cents per kWh, less than the city currently pays.

The final item on the agenda concerned a proposal for a new crematorium at Scoggins Funeral Home as presented by Smith. Scoggins is wanting to purchase the equipment to conduct its own cremations as opposed to sending them elsewhere. Council agreed unanimously to propose changes in the zoning ordinance to get this done. The matter will go to legal for a re-write, then on to the Planning and Zoning committee and then to a public hearing and a subsequent vote will be taken.

Council Notes: Bill Benton presented a transportation update on behalf of the county…Council tabled a vote to nominate someone to the Greater Texoma Utility Authority Board. The nomination will be discussed at the workshop session which is to be scheduled…Council also tabled a motion regarding passage of an ordinance establishing regulations for double fencing…Council agreed to abandon an alleyway to a resident at E. Jefferson and Sherman streets.

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