Council moves to give Midway residents option to use wells

Scott Swanson

Property owners in the Midway area of the city who have wells may soon be able to disconnect from Sweet Home’s water system and use their own well water, as the City Council on Tuesday, June 9, began amending a city ordinance to allow that.

City Attorney Robert Snyder said the state Department of Environmental Quality has worked with him during the past few weeks to draft the amendment to a city ordinance that requires connection to city water in Midway Contaminated Groundwater Area, where toxic chemicals from nearby mill operations contaminated the groundwater in the 1990s. The City Council in 1998 passed an ordinance requiring that properties in the critical area (as determined by the DEQ) connect to and utilize the city water system.

Subsequent testing by the DEQ, in 2008 and 2015, indicates that the water quality has improved in the critical area to a point where some properties may no longer be affected by the contamination, Snyder said.

Property owners who want to use their wells will be required to have tests done to ensure their water is fit to drink, he said. The two tests would cost between $640 and $990, he said in his report, noting that those figures come from three local companies that test water samples.

Councilor Diane Gerson asked how residents who disconnect would be charged for sewer, since sewer bills are linked to water usage.

Finance Director Brandon Neish said they would be charged the current low usage rate, which would be in the $70 range monthly.

Gerson, who said she uses a “minimum” amount of water monthly, suggested that such residents would be paying more than she does, $61 per month, for sewer.

She voted no in a 6-1 decision to approve a first reading of the amendment, which will go through two more readings before being approved by the council. Voting yes were Mayor Greg Mahler and councilors Susan Coleman and Dave Trask, along with James Goble, Lisa Gourley and Courtney Nash, who participated in the meeting remotely.

The council also heard about proposed updates to the city’s Fleet Policy, which governs use of city vehicles. The last updates were in 2011, City Manager Ray Towry said.

Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has changed rules, which now allow the city to permit drivers who are 18 years of age, instead of 21, under the previous rules.

The updates also include revised procedures for employees to follow in the event of an accident and have added a requirement for a Daily Driver’s Vehicle Inspection Report.

Towry said that the city uses part-time temporary seasonal workers in the summers, “who were excellent but who should not have been driving city vehicles” under current rules.

“We would like them to be able to drive to the parks.”

Councilors discussed the necessity of getting a drug test done following an accident, and whether test results would be available if an employee involved in an accident as a driver were treated at a hospital.

“I think if an employee is involved in a motor vehicle accident of any kind, that should be mandatory,” Trask said, after Gerson brought up the issue.

The proposed policy, he noted, states that “the city may require an employee to immediately submit to blood, urine, or Breathalyzer testing” when the employee is involved in a work-related accident which results in injury to anyone involved or “more than trivial” property damage.

“It says ‘may,’” Trask said.

“As the policy board, you can instruct us to chance it to “shall,” Towry responded.

“It should say ‘shall,’” Gerson said.

Towry said he would need to check with the city’s insurance carrier, CIS, because “the fact that we are a public employer affords people different rights.”

Trask said he thought the policy should ban eating while driving, noting that it “says they shouldn’t.”

Towry said the council will be asked to approve the updates after they’ve had a chance to think about it.

In other action, the council:

– Delayed, for a month, a water rate increase councilors approved on April 14 after Towry asked if they wanted to consider foregoing the increases due to the fact that the city later found and repaired a massive water leak.

He said the amount of water saved after the leak over a storm drain on the north end of 9th Avenue was repaired, could fill the Sweet Home Community Pool three times each day. City records indicate the leak existed for eight or nine years, he said.

At the time the council voted for the rate increase, “we were chasing water loss like crazy.”

Repairs needed for the water system prompted the rate increase, he said, and although some are immediately necessary, others could be held off.

Towry also noted that Public Works Director Greg Springman did not share his opinion that some of the repairs could be postponed.

Due to increased pressure on the system since the leak was repaired, others have appeared, Towry said.

“There is a trade-off.”

Springman said that repairing the leak did not reduce the need to repair 80-year-old pipes 2-inch galvanized pipes on 9th Avenue.

Trask asked whether the matter could be put off until the June 23 council meeting “so we can think about this?”

Finance Director Brandon Neish said that water bills based on the new rate will have been mailed by then.

Following discussion, councilors voted 6-1, with Goble dissenting, to suspend the rate increase for a month to allow them time to consider the issue.

– Voted unanimously to make the up to $500-per-day civil penalty, which can be imposed in cases involving chronic nuisance property, apply to any other city code section that refers to a civil penalty, but which does not specifically give a penalty. Those include erosion control and sewer system violations and various building code violations.

– Voted unanimously to renew a contract with with Grove, Mueller & Swank, P.C. for a base amount not to exceed $34,000 for audit services for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Towry told the council that the firm has provided auditing for the city since 2011 and has not increased its prices during the “last several years.” This year’s cost represents a $4,000 increase, he said.

He added that, from his experience in municipal government in Washington before coming to Sweet Home, the firm has provided good service to the city.

– Voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for distribution of disaster funds related to novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“In a nutshell,” Towry said, “This is an agreement so we can claim FEMA funds for our COVID response.” According to a staff report, approximately $60,000 has been spent to date on the city’s COVID-19 response. These expenditures have come directly from pre-existing expenditure authorizations adopted by the council and may impact various city departments.

“Additional costs are likely throughout the summer and as we begin to reopen Oregon and the nation, which could result in an increase in cases. Finally, the economic toll related to COVID-19 is currently unknown.

“Congress has stepped up to provide stopgap measures to mitigate a financial meltdown, but much remains unknown when it comes to timelines, the virus and whether the globe will be right back in this crisis when fall and winter return,” The report said.

– Voted unanimously to improve updates to the city manager’s contract, which expired in March 2019.

The contract requests use of a currently unused city vehicle for “on-call” status and an increase in the standard vacation allotment to the second step for city employees (from 96 hours/year to 120 hours/year) per the Employee Policy Manual.

The contract continues to state that the city manager’s salary will be determined by the council through its adopted salary schedule for non-represented employees, as has been past practice.

Trask said that he wants to see future contracts require that the city manager live inside the city limits. Towry has property just on the outskirts of town.

– Unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement with Linn County to apply for a Community Development Block Grant to provide emergency assistance to small businesses and local microenterprise efforts, and empowering the city manager to sign the IGA and a future sub-grantee agreement with Community Lending Works, which would actually disburse the money to recipients.

Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said Sweet Home will have a more competitive advantage if it applies in conjunction with the county and Lebanon.

“I’ve been in communication with other cities in Linn County,” he said. “We realized that Lebanon and Sweet Home will be more competitive if we apply together. If applied by ourselves, we would have less chance, receive less.”

– Held a second reading to approve a change to the Zoning Map in an area consisting of 8.72 acres, located at 4472 Highway 20, from Commercial Highway (C-2) to Residential High Density (R-2).