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October 24, 2013

GILKEY: Let’s lessen the impact of sewer fees on elderly

— We are in the midst of difficult economic times in this country. The cost of services rises almost daily while the ability of government to fund those services diminishes. It’s a vicious circle and has little to point to a positive outcome.

The people of Clarksville are facing just such a crisis with the increased cost of a new wastewater treatment plant. Townspeople on a fixed income are facing the choice of paying their sewer bill or buying food for the family or desperately needed medications.

Unfortunately, it hits the elderly the hardest and they are the group that can least afford the increases in fees. They typically have the lowest — and fixed — income and have the highest medical bills to deal with.

The situation with the wastewater treatment is something that goes back to the previous council which set into motion the process which has led to the rebuilding of the plant, and which will increase wastewater bills by more than 60 percent.

State and federal mandates led to the need for replacing our existing plant, and not having agreed to build the new plant could have brought about federal sanctions that could have raised fees to upward of $70 a month.

The present council has worked hard to reduce the cost of construction, and as a result of those efforts, has trimmed millions of dollars from the project. Without those efforts, sewer bills would have been profoundly higher. Some of the new council members led that charge and are to be commended for their efforts.

But the situation still remains that the sewer bills are having a profound impact on the lives of people who are least able to pay the increase — the elderly.

I oversee the wastewater plant, having been appointed to that position by Council President Bobby Polston when council responsibilities were assigned at the beginning of this year. That doesn’t give me any special power to control the cost of the plant’s rebuilding, but it does place me in a situation where I hear from a lot of people who are affected by those fees.

One woman contacted me saying that she is forced to live on a fixed income of $1,000 a month and that the sewer fee would force her to decide between paying that bill or putting food on the table. The crisis caused by these higher fees is real, and needs to be dealt with.

For that reason, I am suggesting that the town adopt a sliding scale for the elderly and those who are on a fixed income to help reduce the impact of the fees. Residents of Clarksville should not be forced to choose between food, medicine or sewer bills. There’s got to be a better way.

I know from talking to other council members that the town has heard from many people about the problem this rate increase causes. I believe now is the time to listen to them and find a way to restructure those fees in a more humane manner.

Additionally, there are businesses that face economic disaster from the increased fees. I encourage the town council to look at ways to mitigate those impacts — at the very least in the short-term.

Our job as members of the town council is to help the community grow and prosper. I suggest we take that charge seriously and look for ways to work together as a team to make that happen while protecting the dignity of our residents who are facing tough financial times.

— John Gilkey, Clarksville Town councilman and, District 2 and Clarksville Wastewater Department oversight councilman.

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