The Washington City Council and the Indiana Department of Transportation still do not have a final deal for rebuilding Business 50 and the city taking over the roadway. The city though is moving forward on a number of utility increases that are tied to the project.
During Monday night's meeting, the city council approved first reading on an ordinance that will allow for a 27 percent across the board increase on sewer rates, a 6.1 percent across the board increase in electric rates and a 20 percent across the board increase for water rates.
"What precipitated the rate study and ordinances was the Business 50 discussions with the state," said Washington Mayor Joe Wellman. "The increases will pay off the financing for that project. That's not the main increase though. That is a minor portion of it. Really, we just overall need an increase for operations and improvements and maintenance projects around the city. We have had no raise in utility rates in 5 to 9 years. It's time to catch up."
Even though the city may have needs for utility work outside of the Business 50 corridor, some of the most pressing needs are located along the roadway where some of the city's oldest utility lines are buried and in need of replacement.
"Whether we get an agreement with the state on Business 50 we still need to do these projects," said Wellman. "The water and sewer lines under that road are decades old. We have had a lot of problems with the water lines breaking. There are drainage issues. If not now then sometime in the very near future we'll have to do it and this will provide the funds."
While the council voted unanimously to increase the rates, they did recognize that the move will make living in Washington considerably more costly.
"I agree. Let's just do it," said Councilman Blake Chambers. "Let's do it in one fell swoop rather than a death by a thousand cuts. It is going to be an eye-opener for a lot of people."
All of the utility increases will be up for final approval on Dec. 10. In the meantime, Wellman is hoping the city and the state will be able to iron out their final differences on the Business 50 agreement soon.
"I think we can have one before the end of the year," said Wellman. "They presented us with a final draft. Some council members have voiced some concerns about the language and now they are putting the final touches on it."
Without that formal agreement the city has had to make some planning changes in hopes of securing the best deal for paying for the project. Originally, the city intended to wait until the the agreement with the state was in place before taking on any debt to pay for the work. That changed when the council passed a resolution on a 5 to 2 vote to move forward with bonds for the water portion of the project.
"This lets us move forward before the end of the year," said Wellman. "In the case of the water bonds, we should be able to sell bonds at a tax exempt rate which is lower than a taxable rate. Everybody knows rates are going up, so we want to get this rolling and take advantage of the lower rates."
"My thought is I don't like the idea of the city going into debt until we have an agreement with the state and we don't," said Chambers, who along with Councilman Doug Campton voted against the resolution. "We're close but we don't have one and that makes me uncomfortable."