News and notes from around town:
• Perhaps Chutney is Indian for Chipotle. If you remember, back in July, we reported that a new Indian restaurant was slated for the vacant building at 918 Mass. The owner of the planned restaurant said it would sort of be like the Indian version of Chipotle, but at the time, he didn’t have a name for the place.
Well, it appears he does now. Plans have been filed at City Hall seeking approval for a restaurant called Chutney’s to open in the space, which previously was occupied by Beyond the Door. Plans call for the 918 Mass. space to add sidewalk dining in front of the building.
Not much new information to report other than the name, but I will check in with owner Rasesh Patel to see if he has a new timeline for opening the establishment. Previously, he had told me sometime in September.
• I’m no expert on chutney, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want your tap water to taste like it. In fact, you don’t want your tap water to taste like anything, and the city of Lawrence is getting set to spend some money to make sure that is the case.
Perhaps many of you remember earlier this summer when your city water had an odd taste and smell to it. The good folks at the city’s utilities department sure do. During the early part of June, they were battling the largest geosmin outbreak they had ever dealt with.
Geosmin is a byproduct of dead algae. While not harmful to human health, it can create some odd taste and odor issues with water. This summer geosmin levels coming out of Clinton Lake were about four times higher than Lawrence utility officials had ever recorded. As a result, the city’s processes to deal with the taste and odor issues didn’t keep up.
City officials heard about that from patrons, and city commissioners soon directed utility officials to come up with a plan to deal with geosmin in the future.
Well, the first step of that plan begins on Tuesday. At their weekly meeting, city commissioners are expected to approve a request for proposals from consultants who can give recommendations on how to best address taste and odor issues in the city’s drinking water.
No word yet on how much that report may cost, but the cost of the report will be small potatoes. If city officials get serious about improving taste and odor issues, it very likely will be a multimillion-dollar project.
A brief look at the subject produced an estimate of about $18 million to add advanced “oxidation” processes to both of the city’s water treatment plants. Plus, that process is energy intensive, which may add to the city’s operating costs at the water plants.
The proposed report also will look at other filtration options and advanced “absorption technologies.” In a sign of just how expensive all of this may be, the report also will examine changing the city’s raw water source. I’m not sure what that would involve, but I suspect it could involve the city relying more on wells and other groundwater sources instead of the large surface water source of Clinton Lake, where algae is more of a concern.
The city may not stop with one report on this subject. In addition to the request for an outside consultant, commissioners are being asked to direct the city’s auditor to study the taste and odor issue. The belt-and-suspenders approach is another sign that the city may be embarking on a project that will have a significant impact on future city budgets.
• Speaking of city budgets and water, here’s a little fact I’m betting many of you don’t know: Every time you pay your water bill to the city of Lawrence, you also are paying a property tax bill.
For the last several years, the city has had a system where it transfers money from its water and wastewater fund (wastewater is fancy talk for sewer) to the city’s general operating fund.
Lately the city has been taking about $3 million a year in water and wastewater rates and putting them into the city’s general checkbook, which is used to pay for everything from parks and recreation to police. In 2012, about 9.9 percent of your monthly water and sewer bill will be used to make this transfer.
The city also makes similar but smaller transfers out of the solid waste fund (solid waste is fancy talk for trash) and the storm water fund. But the city has no policy to guide these big dollar transfers. The city auditor has raised a red flag about the lack of a policy for several years now.
Staff members created a draft policy many months ago, but city commissioners haven’t taken action on it. They may on Tuesday night. The draft policy spells out three reasons why the city should be able to take rate dollars paid by water and sewer users (and trash and storm water but let’s focus on water and sewer since it is the biggest) and apply them to the city’s general fund. They are:
- The water and sewer utility should compensate other city departments for the services it provides the utility. For example, the city’s legal department handles all legal issues for the water and sewer utility. The utility should compensate the legal department for its time and services. Thus far, I haven’t heard many people who disagree with that rationale, and indeed it appears many cities have a policy that makes that sort of transfer.
- The water and sewer utility should make a payment that represents a franchise fee to compensate the city for use of its right-of-way. Private utilities, such as gas, electric and telephone companies, pay the city a franchise fee to use the city’s rights-of-way to bury lines and infrastructure. The water and sewer utility obviously buries lots of pipes on city rights-of-ways. State law doesn’t require a city-owned utility to pay a franchise fee, but the new policy argues the city’s general fund really ought to be entitled to that money. Franchise fees are big business in the city. In 2012, franchise fees are expected to be the third largest source of revenue in the city’s general fund, right behind sales taxes and property taxes. They generate about $6 million total, and city staffers believe their own utility shouldn’t be exempt from the payment. One difference between most of the utilities operating in Lawrence and the water and sewer utility, is that most utilities are for-profit entities. They city’s water and sewer utility technically is not.
- The water and sewer utility should make a payment that represents the amount it would pay in city property taxes, if it were a private, for-profit utility. City staff members note the water and sewer utility benefits from tax supported services such as police and fire protection and even a fine parks and recreation system. Thus the water and sewer utility should make the equivalent of a property tax payment.
This one seemed to create some concern on multiple levels when we last reported on the subject. One issue is if the water and utility service benefits from things such as nice parks, surely it benefits from a well-run public school district and a county government. If the water and sewer utility were actually a private utility it would make property tax payments to the school district and the county as well. Trust me, that is not what city staff members are proposing.
The idea of a city-owned utility making a payment-in-lieu of taxes to itself is not unheard of in city circles. It appears both the city of Topeka and the city of Wichita make some sort of similar payment.
Here in Lawrence, the Lawrence Home Builders Association has been the group that has expressed the most concern about the transfer issue. At one point the leader of that group said the transfer policy seemed like a bit of a shell game, where city officials would have a method to pass along a de facto property tax increase for Lawrence residents through water and sewer rates. I haven’t checked with the group lately, so we’ll see if they still have concerns.
Traditionally, it has been easier politically to raise water and sewer rates than it has been to raise the city’s property tax mill levy. Lately, though, commissioners have balked at raising water and sewer rates too.