Cape City Council to set second wastewater election for June as precaution

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cape Girardeau residents haven't even had the chance to vote on a new wastewater treatment plant yet, but city officials are already planning to set a second election in June should voters shoot down two April 5 ballot measures that would finance $72 million for the new plant.

Calling it a "precautionary" move, the Cape Girardeau City Council has given first-round approval to calling a citywide election June 7. The council is expected to give final approval at its March 7 meeting, with a deadline of March 29 for issues to make the June ballot.

"We hope it passes in April, and we're working toward that," city manager Scott Meyer said. "It's a tightrope to walk, but we thought about this for several weeks and decided having this second election ready was our best option."

Voters will face two wastewater issues on the April 5 ballot -- the extension of a quarter-cent capital improvement sales tax and a $72 million bond issue. Basically, the bond issue will pay for a new wastewater treatment plant and other sewer improvements and the sales tax extension will repay the bonds, city officials have said.

But the sales tax extension won't be enough to repay the bonds, which will require rate increases, Meyer said. City officials have said if voters approve both measures, rates will rise by about $23 a month on average. If the bond issue is voted down but the sales tax extension is approved, the addition to rates will be $25 a month.

If the bond issue passes and the extension is rejected, increases will be $29 a month on average. If both issues fail, the increase will come to about $31 a month for the average user. The current average sewer charge is $13.46 a month.

Voters should have every chance to vote yes for the issue, Meyer said, especially because this election is unlike most other elections. That's because the election will not decide whether a new wastewater treatment plant is built, simply how it's paid for. There will be sewer charge increases either way, but if the measures fail, those increases will be higher, he said.

"That's counterintuitive," Meyer said, adding that it may be a tough sell for voters.

If voters approve the bond measure, it would allow the city to apply for lower-interest municipal bonds. If not, the city would have to issue higher-interest bonds, which would cost more to repay and lead to higher rate charges, Meyer said.

"We want to show how emphatic we are that we are trying to do it in the most economical way," Meyer said.

If one issue fails in April, only that one would be voted on again in June, Meyer said, resisting the suggestion that voters would be making a statement with no votes in April.

"What would that mean? That voters want to pay more?" Meyer said.

The current wastewater treatment plant is out of compliance with Department of Natural Resources regulations that no longer allow untreated wastewater to be sent to the Mississippi River. That happens with the existing plant during heavy rains, about 20 times a year. The city has legally committed to DNR that it would bring the city into compliance by 2014 to avoid further penalties.

The city has already paid a civil penalty of $15,000 and has built a $111,000 commercial recycling component to its transfer station to avoid further penalties.

The city originally planned to expand the existing plant off South Sprigg Street, but sinkholes that appeared in 2009 halted those plans. A new plant is being designed for 11 acres the city owns near the public works facility on Southern Expressway.

"So it has to be built," Meyer said. "That's the biggest misconception about this that I hear, that they'll be voting on whether we're building a plant or not. That's not the case."

Mayor Harry Rediger said setting a June election is a precaution.

"We're not anticipating it will fail in April," Rediger said. "We're just guarding against what might be a possibility. If we wake up and it failed by three votes, we'll take two more months to continue to try to inform the voters."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

2007 Southern Expressway, Cape Girardeau, MO

429 Cooper St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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