An ordinance that would raise the age to buy tobacco and nicotine products in Joplin had clear sailing with the Joplin City Council on first reading Monday night.
A plan to raise sewer rates a cumulative 25% over the next five years encountered dissent, though the council ultimately advanced it as well.
The panel was asked to approve a 5% increase in the rates each year through 2024. Bills will go up about $2 a month with the first increase, and by the fifth year by about $12 per month. Those outside city limits who use city sewer service also pay a 30% surcharge on top of that rate.
A consultant hired by the city to conduct a rate study to look at costs over those years said the recommended rate increases will generate the revenue needed to meet the costs of operating the wastewater system and keep a level of reserve money to cover emergency expenses.
But Bruce Anderson, the mayor of the Loma Linda community, told the council that the increasing sewer rates are too much for his residents, who are largely senior citizens.
"This one issue, the sewer rates and what's happened the last five years, we've received more complaints over that than anything," he told the council. Rates climbed a cumulative 61% over the last five years. As part of that, this year's hike was 12%, taking monthly bills inside the city limits from about $39 to $44.
Among the reasons for the hikes cited by city staff in past discussions is the cost of equipping the plants to meet state and federal regulations.
Anderson said he understands that passing rates along to residents is not a fun job for the council and that he understands the demands of meeting regulations.
"But what I would like the council to seriously consider, actually what the senior citizens of Loma Linda would like the council to seriously consider, is doing some type of situation where the increase to senior citizens is not as difficult financially as it is to the rest of the folks," Anderson said.
Mayor Gary Shaw said Anderson brought up a good point. "That's one of the same issues that we, as a council, face" with the increases. "We hear those same comments."
Mayor Pro Tem Ryan Stanley asked if the city had ever considered setting rates based on demographics.
The consultant, David Naumann of Burns and McDonnell engineering company, said it is not common to set rate plans that way and that it creates the challenge of knowing which sewer customers are seniors. But a few communities have done that.
Councilman Anthony Monteleone said he would vote against the proposed rate increases because he knows it is expensive for those with low or fixed incomes. He would like to see a way to cap increases at the rate the consumer price index rises, which this year was only 2% compared with the 5% sewer rate hike.
Councilman Phil Stinnett had questioned at a previous council discussion why all customers pay the same facility charge, the larger part of the bill, rather than being charged by volume of water used by the household. That creates an inequity in which a single senior or a senior couple pay as much as a household with several people, he said he believes.
He said he would vote for the plan because the city is operating its Turkey Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant under a consent decree that requires certain steps to be taken to reduce contaminants and needs the revenue to meet those requirements.
But he asked for future council involvement in setting future rates to determine if there is any more equitable way to charge customers.
Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean cautioned that the city would need to be careful considering whether to give discounts to certain customers because it could lead to a lawsuit for discrimination.
Stanley said the council could be on a slippery slope to give discounts to certain customers but that he supports studying whether there should be billing on volume usage versus a facility charge.
Stanley made a motion to advance the proposed rate schedule and it passed 8-1, with Monteleone voting against it.
The council heard from several supporters seeking enactment of the Tobacco 21 ordinance. It restricts retailers from selling tobacco, nicotine or e-cigarettes to those younger than 21.
Ashley Micklethwaite, executive director of the One Joplin organization, submitted more than 70 letters to show the council that the measure has the support of local health providers, social service agencies, schools, teachers, parents and others.
She said that many smokers start before the age of 21 and that tobacco use is the primary cause of premature death.
Toby Teeter, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed the endorsement of the Tobacco 21 ordinance by the chamber's board of directors. He said that the reduction in smoking created by the law could, over time, reduce health care costs to the Joplin community by $45 million a year. Joplin has a higher rate of smoking-related illnesses than the state and the state has a higher rate than the nation, he told the council.
Scott Vorhees, of Vision Joplin 2022, also encouraged the council to adopt the ordinance. He said smoking rates were going down until 2014, when e-cigarettes were introduced. That has created a market for nicotine that has sent smoking rates skyrocketing.
Vorhees commended the city's interim city manager, Dan Pekarek, who as director of the Joplin Health Department several years ago identified the health implications of smoking addiction on the community.
The council agreed 9-0 to advance the ordinance for final reading at its next meeting.
"I'm thrilled on behalf of our community," Vorhees said in response to the vote. "I think council has listened to the concerns of the community and acted on it. I think it's overdue but I am very, very pleased we are taking this next step to make our community healthier and safer."