Tuesday, November 29, 2011

SEWER STINK, CONTINUED: Ongoing battle highlights City Hall dysfunction, Pt. 1

Dedicated city employee continually blown off over valid policy concerns
COLUMBIA, 11/29/11 (Beat Byte) -- For observers of City Hall, where trying to pass meaningful legislation can mean endless games of stop, start, and stall, the ongoing struggle between city public works supervisor Bill Weitkemper (left), his superiors, and the Columbia City Council over sewer billing has been one of the most confounding and bizarre in recent memory. 
For consumers under siege by rising rates, falling wages, unemployment, and a sagging economy, Weitkemper's travails are a travesty writ large across that giant new Columbia City Hall building, sold as a way to improve government, not make it more costly and cumbersome.   
The Columbia Sewer Stink continued at the last Council meeting with a confusing question-answer session between Columbia City Council members, city manager Mike Matthes, and public works director John Glascock.  At issue: Council Bill B293-11, a change to the sewer billing ordinance that mandates how bills are averaged, especially when residents are away for long periods and in a phrase, aren't flushing.
Whistle blown
Back in 2009, Weitkemper blew the whistle on utility billing practices costing Columbia residents millions of dollars.  
Based on three years of studying and quantifying the problems, Weitkemper's carefully laid out case had City Hall systematically under-billing large and powerful sewer utility users such as malls and Mizzou, and then passing off the resulting losses to average consumers via rate increases and other shenanigans.  It also had his superiors blowing him off whenever he'd bring the problems up, and local reporters doing a hit-and-miss job covering the cover-up. 
One Sewer Task Force and several proposed ordinance changes later, sewer bills have rocketed higher for average consumers, and unnecessarily Weitkemper maintains.   In fact, this year's 15% sewer rate hike should have been a rate cutthe 35-year veteran city employee told the Heart Beat in September.
Big mistake
To illustrate problems with B293-11, Weitkemper told Council members about Fifth Ward resident Robert Schultz, who over the course of a year would pay almost seven times more for his sewer bill under the proposal they were considering.   
"I also provided this information and my opinion why the proposed ordinance was a mistake to Mr. Glascock after Mr. Schultz contacted me," Weitkemper said.  "Mr. Glascock did not respond."

Visibly concerned, Council members at the Monday meeting peppered senior staffers with questions, some they answered incorrectly, Weitkemper explained.
"The city manager indicated the proposed ordinance was going to change winter quarter average billing from a three month average to a six month average.  That was not correct," Weitkemper told the Heart Beat.   "The ordinance did not provide for a six month average.   It merely changed the three months used to calculate the average, from Jan-March to Oct-Dec."
Weitkemper is right.  The ordinance -- a simple two pages -- says nothing about a six-month average billing system.   How, one is left wondering, could the city manager himself get it so wrong
Mr. Matthes also used a fall-back line more than once in response to other questions:  We have this big city, see, and this big ordinance, see, and of course there will be some people like Robert Schultz who aren't happy with it.  We're proposing a global solution, and just can't get caught up with every Granny Fanny Nesselrode who calls in with a billing problem.

But as a public enterprise, resolving such problems is exactly what City Hall should be doing, Weitkemper says, and his frustration is apparent.  "How many more opportunities is staff going to have to get this right?" he told the Heart Beat, citing the issue's importance with an October 19 Missourian story that reported 40-70 residential customers per day having their utilities shut off for non-payment.
Donations for rate hikes??!

Ironically, the Missourian story is both a report of recent rate hikes -- and a plea for donations to help people pay those higher bills, a situation Weitkemper says is totally out of whack.  To right the ship, he's been urging action under two administrations:  Hindman/Watkins and now McDavid/Matthes, without much success. 
"I've asked the Council:  How many more opportunities are you going to give staff to get this right?" Weitkemper said. 
Council Bill B293-11 was tabled until the December 5 Council meeting.  
NEXT TIME:  Communication Not-so-Merry Go Round


  1. You took a stand, Mr. Weitkemper, and you stand tall.

  2. This is the lesson for our children: stand up for what's right, only to have your bosses put you down. And all that so they can preserve big breaks for certain special interests.

    Good going, Bill Weitkemper -- my vote to replace John Glascock as head of public works!

  3. Those upper echelon folks ain't always as bright as they think they are. Good job Mr. Bill!