A bill in the state Senate designed to prevent a local township from what some have called “price gouging” when it charges sewer service tap-on fees won’t advance this year even though legislators overwhelmingly approved a stricter measure last session.
Republican Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon introduced Senate Bill 1815 in February to curtail what he and other proponents have said is Caseyville Township’s “extortion” of taxpayers and the business community by charging high sewer tap-on fees.
The bill sets a standard, graduated tap-on fee for new homes and buildings based on the size of water meter the buildings use. A stricter version of the bill that also would have regulated municipalities passed both chambers a year ago with ease before then-Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed it.
State law currently lets townships that run sewer and water services set fees and rates on their own. In Caseyville Township, new homes are charged a flat $2,000 fee to tap onto the system. Larger buildings are charged $2,000 per plumbing fixture. Hotels, for example, are charged well over $250,000 before ground is ever broken.
The bill was postponed several times over the last two months before Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, said that the measure “failed to advance in committee” with no plans to call it for a vote.
There was a chance Wednesday that the bill could be revived by the Senate’s second in command, Sen. James Clayborne, D-East St. Louis, after he met with local developer Darwin Miles, the architect of the bill. But Miles said Wednesday evening that the Senate would not move forward.
According to McCarter, it was Clayborne who blocked the bill’s progress in the first place, despite it being a watered-down version of the bill that secured near-unanimous passage in both the House and Senate a year ago.
Clayborne did not return calls for comment for this story.
‘Regulate these people’
“It’s just unfortunate that Democrat leadership in St. Clair County wants to put politics over the people,” McCarter said. “As much as we want local control of government, the abuse has gotten to the point where the legislature has to step in and regulate these people.”
Abuse of a system with few rules isn’t the only accusation McCarter has aimed toward the township. He also says they’ve engaged in scare tactics to preserve a source of millions of dollars in revenue.
In a letter to each of the township’s 9,000 sewer customers, officials warned that residential sewer service charges could soar to double or even triple the current $28 flat monthly rate if McCarter’s bill passed because slashing tap-on fees would choke off the stream of money officials have said is used to pay off a loan it took out to modernize its sewer plant.
That’s despite evidence that the account the township uses to repay that loan has ballooned even as the debt service, which totals around $1.6 million a year, is paid. According to audits townships are required to provide the Illinois Comptroller’s Office, Caseyville Township’s sewer tap-on account had almost $6.4 million in it in 2012. In 2014, that same account had grown to over $7.4 million.
It’s also despite evidence the township was required to provide in its loan application to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Water Pollution Control Loan Program. The rules governing the program state that townships must prove they generate enough money through monthly sewer rates to pay off the debt. Before the IEPA approved the loan, it signed off on the township’s documentation that stated current sewer rates constituted a sufficient “dedicated source of revenue” to repay the $22 million it borrowed to update its facility.
The IEPA doesn’t outlaw townships from using money generated from tap-on fees to repay loans, but it noted in a letter of approval in 2000 that Caseyville Township would be able to generate the money needed to repay the loan based on current user charges, not other sources of revenue. A second letter from 2006 stated the same thing.
“They (township officials) have their constituents fooled,” Miles said. “They lied in that flier they mailed to all those people.”
“Truthfully, I believe that Caseyville Township Sewer District should have to give this money back,” said McCarter, who added that he’s taken heat from constituents angered over the prospect of increased sewer bills. “This is probably a great example of why we need consolidations in local governments and the elimination of townships. Maybe the next barrage of mail and phone calls comes from people to say, ‘we want justice here. And we want our money back.’”
Defending the fees
Caseyville Township Supervisor Bruce Canty defended the township’s tap-on fees, saying “we’ve always been fair.” Claims by McCarter, Miles and others that the township is squeezing would-be homebuilders and other developers, he said, are “not true.”
“What people don’t understand is this system started in 1967. Through the years we’ve expanded our system to meet the needs of the township and other areas. That’s what’s helping our area grow,” Canty said.
“If it hadn’t been for Caseyville Township’s foresight, Darwin Miles wouldn’t have anything to develop in the first place,” he added. “Look at what they’re building over there. And it’s still going.”
Miles wasn’t moved by that defense. “I find that very funny in a not-so-funny way,” he said. “It shows the shallowness of (township leadership’s) thought patterns. Most everyone who has done business with Caseyville Township will say what I’m saying.”
Not going to quit
Miles said the setback in the Senate isn’t enough to get him to drop his argument that the township is out of line.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a quitter,” he said.
McCarter said he wasn’t finished, either. Not as long as what he calls a “rogue township” continues charging “unconscionable” fees.
“I’m not through. It sends a message that, ‘hey, we’re going to squeeze whatever we can out of you just because we can,’” he said. “We just want to blame the legislature (for Illinois’ problems), which obviously is very responsible for much of it, but local governments have to admit what they’ve done as well. There’s going to have to be some courage shown, not only in Springfield but at the local level.”