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Council rethinks gas rate hikes
Jul 12, 2006 12:00 am
June 30, 2006 – Reigniting what has become somewhat of a contentious issue, Lebanon city councilors left room for a possible increase in natural gas rates while passing next year's budget.
The Lebanon City Council will have a work session Aug. 1 to debate raising rates, which have experienced a back-and-forth approval. While councilors voted down the rate increase 5-1 a day earlier, they had approved it 6-0 less than two weeks ago.
Councilors also seemed to feel the urgency when City Attorney Andy Wright informed councilors another year with a deficit in the gas department would spark action by the state comptroller.
The gas department finished in the red last year and is expected to this year. A third consecutive deficit would spell trouble for Lebanon, Wright explained.
"That triggers a comptroller audit of the gas department," Wright said, which would then be passed on to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Lebanon is already under a TDEC mandate to rehabilitate the city's aging sewer system, slated to drain $20 million or more from city coffers.
Councilors had voted to wait until the city received a warning letter from the state about the gas department's second-year deficit to address rates after Mayor Don Fox said the rate increases were unnecessary on a local radio show.
Meanwhile, city staff has urged councilors to approve the increase, citing dramatically rising natural gas prices and need for improvements to the system.
Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler, as have several councilors in past meetings, used the analogy of a gun to one's head while asking why the deficit in the gas department was not addressed sooner.
"We had this same problem last year, and it wasn't addressed," said Buhler, who is serving the first year of his first term on the Council. "… Why wasn't the Council that was here informed?"
Bittinger told him the previous Council decided to cut capital outlay in half, but said 18 months of consecutive price increases virtually nullified that effort.
"The constant increase … and the warm weather" were contributing factors, Bittinger said. "… There's only three or four months where the gas department has a chance of making a profit.
"… I told the Council it was tight."
Acknowledging something will have to be done "sooner or later," Buhler suggested passing the budget without the rate increase and bringing the gas issue back up "with something I can live with and people know the truth," apparently pointing to the contradictions within Lebanon city government.
"It's patently obvious that we have to do something," Ward 3 Councilor William Farmer said.
In other business, Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Huddleston – who hammered on overtime budgets in previous work sessions and Wednesday's Council meeting – introduced an ultimately successful budget amendment which slashed overtime in the mayor and Council's budget from $5,200 to $1,500.
Only two employees fall into this budget: mayoral assistant Debbie Jessen and administrative assistant Jaci Diebner.
Both job descriptions include taking minutes at Council meetings. And while Jessen regularly attends meetings, Diebner has been taking the minutes since she joined the city staff several months ago. The previous secretary also took the minutes in lieu of Jessen.
In examining overtime budgets, Huddleston had asked for and received job descriptions as well as an opinion from Personnel Director Jim Henderson as to whether the mayoral assistant position and two other jobs should be classified as exempt from overtime.
Jessen has been paid more than $48,000 so far in the 2005-2006 fiscal year with $4,200 earned with 128 hours of overtime.
Henderson reported back to councilors Wednesday his determination was Jessen's position as mayoral assistant was non-exempt, meaning she was not eligible to be placed on a set salary.
In turn, citing duplicity in the two employees' job descriptions, Huddleston's proposed amendment passed unanimously.
"The Council went back and forth on whether the mayoral assistant job should be salaried or should be entitled to overtime," Huddleston said after the meeting. "Based on the information that I received, I felt like it should be a salaried job. But coming from Mr. Henderson, he didn't feel that way.
"If you look at the job description they have, there's … too many similarities between administrative assistant (Diebner) and the mayoral assistant job. I felt like overtime was not there and should be cut."
In addition, water and sewer rate hikes were approved on final reading and the City of Lebanon adopted the International Building Code, which replaced codes last updated in 1997.
Any plans submitted or issued permits prior to July 1 will not have to comply, but anything in the design phase or otherwise is not approved by that date must comply with the IBC.
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at email@example.com.