Public outcry causes Rediger to nix utility help plan

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An overwhelming amount of public push-back prompted Cape Girardeau Mayor Harry Rediger on Tuesday to cancel a proposal intended to help low-income households keep up with sharp utility bill increases.

Rediger said he saw a steady stream of emails and phone calls and had several face-to-face conversations with residents Tuesday. Every one of them said the same thing, Rediger said: They were against it.

"It was overwhelming and it was 100 percent," Rediger said. "I have always said -- I said it when in my election for mayor and I have said it since then -- we are in the business to represent our constituency and that we will always listen to them."

Based on that feedback, Rediger said he directed city staff to stop working on an ordinance that would set aside more than $250,000 for qualifying residents over a three-year period to avoid utility cutoffs.

"It's a dead issue as far as I'm concerned," Rediger said. "The people I heard from said that it would be another case of government welfare."

In April, about 80 percent of city voters said yes to two propositions that constitute the city's plan to generate $72 million to pay for a new wastewater treatment plant and a multitude of sewer line improvements.

Part of that plan included a steep rate increase, about $200 a year on average, to help pay to replace a dated plant that no longer met EPA guidelines because high usage led to solid-waste bypasses into the Mississippi River. City officials said before the election the increases would have been steeper if neither of the ballot issues -- or only one of the two -- had been voted in.

"The citizens supported the increase, and this is apparently not how they want that money spent," Rediger said of the plan.

The city had been talking recently with agencies such as the Salvation Army and the Community Caring Council to administer a plan aimed at households that make less than $26,800 a year, or about 50 percent of the median income for a family of four.

"I'm disappointed that the city couldn't do something to help that very small portion of our population that live on a fixed income," said Maj. Ben Stillwell, commander of the Salvation Army.

While he said he doesn't necessarily think it's the government's place to sponsor programs like this, the rate increases will mean tough choices for residents. Other programs exist that offer utility assistance in the area, he said.

"It would have been great if they could have done anything," Stillwell said. "I also realize some of the funding isn't there anymore."

Opposition to the plan surfaced Monday night at the Cape Girardeau City Council's study session. Council members Mark Lanzotti and John Voss said it's not the government's role to create what is essentially a welfare program.

On Tuesday, council member Kathy Swan agreed, saying she, too, heard from constituents who didn't like the idea. Reservations she held Monday night turned into outright opposition Tuesday.

Swan said she sees city government's role as providing necessary services to residents -- not one that provides public financial assistance.

"This is a thoughtful and considerate idea," she said. "But it's an idea that's best handled by a nongovernmental entity."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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