McAlester resident Hugh Finger says he can’t afford a 20 to 30 percent rate hike in his water, sewer and garbage pickup bills.

“I’m a senior and I’m against it,” Finger said.

“My water bill already runs more than $40 as it is,” he said.

Like a lot of other McAlester residents, Finger is waiting to see if the city council votes tonight to enact a recommended rate increase in the city’s water, sewer and trash pickup services.

City Manager Susan Monroe said two possible ordinances have been prepared: One for a 24 percent increase and another for a 30 percent increase. The meeting is set for 6 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

City officials say the rate hikes are being considered because the city is in the midst of a financial crunch.

Finger is among city residents living on a fixed income who feel they already face their own financial crunches on a daily basis.

A retired U.S. Postal Service employee, Finger says he’s already had to cut back on his expenses because of the increase in the price of gasoline.

Finger said he’s heard lots of other people who are concerned about the possibility of rate hikes in the city’s water, sewer and garbage pickup services.

“Everyone I hear, they say they can’t afford it,” Finger said.

Richard Smith said he and his wife, Jean, are definitely against the water rate hike. Smith said he’s retired from the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma City.

“The rates are already too high and taxes are too high,” Richard Smith said. “I’m retired and my income is taxed by the state,” he said, referring to the Oklahoma income tax which also takes its bite out of his retirement check.

Smith said he’s concerned about the impact higher rate hikes will have on him and his wife.

“It will definitely make it harder in keeping up the household,” he said.

“I’d be better off in Arkansas.”

McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Lucy Smith said the impact would be huge on the school system and will definitely negatively impact the school’s budget.

“We’re already trying to deal with increases in electricity, gas and diesel,” Smith said.

McAlester schools had $73,600 budgeted for water use last year, she said, so a 24 to 30 percent increase will be substantial.

What will the school system do if the council raises the rates?

“What can we do if the city takes this action?” Smith said. “We’ll have to cut supplies, books, whatever we can, to pay our bills.”

Meanwhile, the head of the city’s Audit and Finance Committee says that any increase in the city’s water, sewer and garbage pickup rates should be temporary.

Mel Stubbings says the rate hikes may be necessary for the short-term, but the city should take a hard look at a sales tax increase as part of its long-term plan.

“Make the sales tax increase sufficient to meet your long-term needs and roll back any utility rate increases,” Stubbings said.

Any increase in the city sales tax would have to be approved by a vote of the people.

Stubbings believes the city should launch into an intensive study on exactly how much of a sales tax will be needed to get the city back on firm financial footing.

He said a sales tax would be more fair, because it would draw revenue from a wider source than the approximately 7,000 water hookups in the city.

Stubbings said the city must take other action.

“We must come up with additional cuts in costs,” he said. “You can’t put all of this on the backs of the citizens.”

Stubbings projected that the city will draw enough in sales tax revenue during the current fiscal year, which ends next June 30, to meet the obligations on the city’s capital improvement bond indebtedness.

Stubbings said that does not address the city’s operating costs. He said another problem is that the bond payments are due in early February, but the sales tax revenue is spread over the entire fiscal year: From July 1 through June 30, 2006.

“The short-term problem is in cash flow,” he said, adding that the city needs a long-term plan.

City councilors were told by consultant Rick A. Smith of the Edmond-based Municipal Finance Services, Inc. last week that the city needs to raise the rates primarily because of pending bond indebtedness payments.

City Manager Susan Monroe told the council that the city is already cutting costs, but still has a $1 million shortfall in this year’s budget.

Finger said he’s so concerned about the possibility of a rate hike that he’s thinking about attending tonight’s city council meeting.

“I’ll probably be there,” he said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

Recommended for you