Town Board passes FY ‘21-’22 budget 4-1; waives online utility payment fee

Very little has changed since the FY ’21-’22 budget was finalized in early May and again in late May when commissioners voted to hold the required public hearing prior to passage at the June Town Board meeting.

It’s basically $28.3 million after $137,500 was added for LED ballfield lights, which will be matched by the county, and a reduction in the General Fund Capital Projects Fund due to a recent payment to DR Reynolds for the fire department project.

Neither tax rates nor fees are changing for citizens this upcoming year.

However, in a surprise move at the June Town Board meeting, Commissioner Marc Hehn voted not to adopt the FY ’21-’22 budget with a vote 4-1.

“As I’ve said before, I am against paving a private road in a new subdivision. I have been getting complaints from citizens who live on private roads that the town won’t maintain; they feel they are being treated unfairly,” he said.

The road Commissioner Hehn is referring to is a gravel road that bisects a parcel of land owned on both sides by one party which connects Sherwood Forest Road to Little Bear Pen Road.

When the parcel was purchased, the new owner asked if the town wanted to take the road over and pave it because it is gravel and prone to erosion, because town water lines that service one-quarter of the town run under the road and “because it serves as the only escape route available to Little Bear Pen residents should a road in that vicinity slide off the mountain,” said Town Engineer/Public Service Director Lamar Nix.

Though the town doesn’t usually take over private roads Nix said he considered it civic-minded of the owner to suggest it due to the underlying circumstances.

This year $180,000 is being used to repave Spring Street; $120,000 to repave Sherwood Forest with $15,000 of that going to pave the gravel spur; $85,000 to pave Upper Lake Road and $135,000 to pave Lower Lake Road, both of which are gravel.

The ad valorem tax rate of $.1565 per $100 valuation is unchanged with the 1 ½ cents previously earmarked for recreation now being used for Street Paving Projects each year.

Commissioner Hehn also said he was voting against the budget because he feels the town is falling behind on its water plant “to-do” list, namely not spending $3 million on a water holding tank this coming budget year.

Nix said the tank is slated to be replaced but since it isn’t a critical or catastrophic situation, he has budgeted for other water plant projects this year – specifically a new high service replacement pump with variable flow devices that will ensure continuous service to the town should there be a major waterline break. The town is spending a total of $885,000 for improvements to the water treatment plant this coming year.

Nix said the 2019 Water Master Plan Report/Study lays out a potential list of projects for completion over the next 30 years and he believes it is that report Commissioner Hehn is referring to.

“First, many of the projects on the list have been completed or are in the process of being completed but also, priorities change with time. And with the potential of grant money for infrastructure coming our way it was best to make a few projects ‘shovel ready’ for funding, of which the water tank is one. Should that money come in, that water tank can be replaced and much, much more,” he said.

Online Utility Payments

Also at the June meeting, commissioner voted to forever waive the online fee it has traditionally charged citizens when paying their utility bills online with credit cards.

Town of Highlands waived the online utility payment fee.

For several years, the town allowed customers to utilize online bill pay with credit card payments along with e-check payments. However, in March of 2020 during the Covid pandemic, the town waived the 2.75% fee for credit card payments and the $1 per e-check to help customers access online bill pay and eliminate a little extra cost during the pandemic.

Consequently, since March 2020, the town has seen online payment collections go up about $325,000 since FY’19-’20 —  from approximately $1,121,000 to $1,447,000.

“Citizens are definitely utilizing the system more now that they are not being charged the fees,” said Town Treasurer Rebecca Shuler.

Though the town will lose about $15,000 a year in fees, Shuler said online payments save the town’s customer service representatives time considering the daily handling of mail, processing checks into the software and then scanning and filing checks into the vault for records retentions.

“Online payments are definitely the more modern, electronic and paperless route,” said Shuler. “Online payments take approximately 10 minutes to process as opposed to an afternoon (about four hours) to process a check run.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to do away with credit card fees as well as e-check fees from now on.

Anyone who wishes to change to online billing and credit card payment for utilities is encouraged to call the town at 828.526.2118.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper
Photos by Brian O’Shea, Plateau Daily News

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