Jan Joplin was stunned to see her monthly water bill more than double last year, even though the city alerted residents that a massive rate increase was necessary to make needed repairs.
Joplin, contending the rate increase was too big and the justification too vague, mounted a campaign to repeal it.
“That’s a lot of money for most people,” said Joplin, who has lived for 22 years in Kennedale, a city of 7,715 just southeast of Fort Worth. “A lot of citizens are hurting, and we’ve been ignored — and misled.”
It has been nearly a year since the rate hike took effect. It added about $35 to what the city estimated as the average water/sewer bill of about $30 to generate funds to pay for an emergency sewer line replacement and other mounting infrastructure needs.
That’s a lot of money for most people. A lot of citizens are hurting, and we’ve been ignored — and misled.
Jan Joplin, Kennedale resident
Since then, residents have complained at City Council meetings. Last August, they handed the city a petition with 700 signatures demanding a return to the old rates. City officials rejected the petition as invalid, saying the funding appropriations aren’t subject to such demands.
But in the fall, after appointing a committee to study the issue, the council dropped the new rate by 16 percent, cutting about $273,000 from the estimated annual revenues the original rate increase would generate, said outgoing City Manager Bob Hart, who is leaving Kennedale to become city manager in Corinth in Denton County.
That reduction didn’t appease the protesters. Now they’re planning to run candidates this spring against three council members whose two-year terms are expiring. And they’re threatening a campaign to recall Mayor Brian Johnson.
Allen Ray, who spearheaded the petition drive, said the identities of their council candidates are being kept under wraps for now. The candidate filing period for the May 6 elections continues through Feb. 17.
“We have not let it be known who they are,” Ray said. “We’ve got about 95 people involved in this thing and ready to go hit the streets and get these people known.”
Johnson said the city acted responsibly to shore up a revenue shortfall in the utility fund.
“What they want is to put the rates back where they are,” said Johnson. “That would put us in the red. We can’t do that.”
The city admittedly made some missteps. It first said a rate increase was necessary to recoup the estimated $800,000 cost of replacing a sewer line across Village Creek. After a different cost of $250,000 circulated among the public, the city issued a statement late last month putting the actual cost at $350,000, adding, “We apologize for the confusion” caused by tossing out the higher figure as a ballpark estimate, the city said.
The statement also clarified other factors, such as increased costs to purchase water from Fort Worth to supplement Kennedale’s well system, and for the transportation and treatment of wastewater. The city spent $348,000 to install a booster pump station, $171,000 to buy land for a future water storage tank, $180,000 to replace several vehicles and a backhoe, and about $215,000 for a utility impact fee study, line repairs and a pump replacement.
$760,000Utility fund deficit caused by wet weather, infrastructure repairs and other needs
Wet weather also was a factor, particularly record rainfall in the spring of 2015, which drastically reduced demand for water, slashing city revenue. The utility fund dwindled to a deficit of about $760,000, but officials say the rate increase has begun refilling that account.
The city had been evaluating its water/sewer rates every three years, which officials say probably isn’t often enough, especially when wet weather dries up revenues. But addressing that issue, the city’s new rate structure reflects a major shift toward setting fixed costs to generate the money needed to run the utility system, rather than relying on residents using extra water during drier weather.
With the state’s emphasis on water conservation, Johnson said, “Now you’re telling citizens not to buy water — and causing your system to go into the red.”
The cost statement was thorough, but admittedly late, several officials said.
Most of us would say we could have tried to find another way to get the message out.
Mike Walker, City Councilman
“What I think some citizens have a complaint about is that there wasn’t some kind of a special newsletter, something to call their attention to what we were going to be doing,” said City Councilman Mike Walker, a former Kennedale school board president. “Most of us would say we could have tried to find another way to get the message out.”
Several residents angry about their bills turned out again at City Hall on Jan. 23, but they found a defiant, even upset, City Council.
At the meeting, the council was set to hire an interim city manager to replace Hart, who had been there for 10 years. Some council members criticized the “vitriol” they said the protests had stirred, which they believe contributed to Hart’s decision to leave for Corinth, a city of 20,000 just southeast of Denton.
Hart’s last day was Jan. 27, the day the water-cost statement was issued.
“This is a really sad day,” said Councilwoman Liz Carrington, her voice breaking. “It’s one of the worst things that could ever happen to this city. I think Corinth is the luckiest city in the universe.”
In interviews, Hart said he did not feel run out of town, even though he was the chief lightning rod for the rate-hike resistance. He took the job to be closer to family and because he believes Corinth, more than twice Kennedale’s size, holds opportunity for professional growth.
“You don’t do this stuff (city managing) without problems like that cropping up,” said Hart, 63. “But mainly, Corinth puts me within a half-hour of a niece, two brothers, a sister, my mom, four of our kids and all three grandchildren. At this stage in my career, it’s all about family.”