And so, the plot thickens.
Specifically, additional information surfaced in recent days regarding the potential lease of O’Fallon’s wastewater system, punctuated with a spirited city council meeting Monday night.
Mayor Gary Graham was not present for the meeting. Ward 5 Alderman Michael Bennett sat in for Graham as Mayor Pro Tem.
Moreover, the two questions on the upcoming April 7 ballot regarding the potential lease are:
• From the city: Shall the City of O’Fallon consider only a lease and not a sale of the municipal-owned water and wastewater systems and related assets?
• From O’Fallon Citizens for Action: Shall the City of O’Fallon sell or lease the municipal-owned water and wastewater systems and related assets?
With that said, after several speakers, Ron Zelms, resident and opponent of leasing the wastewater system, assumed the podium.
Zelms stated a Freedom of Information Act request filed in September 2014 produced hundreds of e-mails with multiple attachments involving this entire process.
“And this is the tip of the iceberg as there are more documents in Springfield that we hope will be released soon,” he said. “Even though Huron Consulting wasn’t hired until March 17, 2014, consultants were actively engaged with city officials at least one year prior to that regarding the sale of the water and sewer utilities. Four days after Huron Consulting was hired, a lawyer from a firm that regularly does business with the city asked the following of a city official, ‘What is the status of the future planning of the water system?’ The first sentence of the response by the city official is, ‘On the water issue, the council has voted to bring in Huron Consulting (ex-mayor of Indianapolis) to start marketing us.’ I went back and re-read the resolution to hire Huron Consulting. They were hired to conduct a management study of the utility systems, not to market them.
“The second sentence of the city official’s response is more revealing. It reads, ‘Pretty sure half the Alderman haven’t put the pieces together.’ I don’t know about you, but I feel bamboozled. I think that once the council and public get a chance to look over these documents, many citizens who thought they should vote ‘yes’ will understand the need to change their vote. A ‘yes’ vote would only lend false legitimacy to a process that has not been open and honest with the council and more importantly, the citizens of this city.
“Even though a contract wasn’t signed with the law firm of Baker & McKenzie until August 18, 2014, they were actively engaged and wanting to bill for services well before that. Within eight days of officially hiring Huron Consulting, invitations were sent out to four potential vendors to meet April 22, 2014, at a St. Louis law firm to discuss how the process for the possible sale and/or outsourcing of the water and sewer operations ought to be conducted.
“Remember, the RFP (Request for Proposal) wasn’t issued until five months later. One of the four vendors who were invited to participate in this meeting is one of the three finalists. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the other two finalists will react kindly when they find out one of their competitors may have had an inside advantage in this process.”
Zelms concluded by providing his reasons for why citizens should vote no.
“At the town hall meeting hosted by O’Fallon Citizens For Action last Monday evening (March 9), someone asked the following, ‘Tell me why I should vote ‘NO,’” he said. “Let me answer that now. First, vote ‘NO’ on the city’s question to consider a lease in order to send a message to city hall that you do not condone the back-door dealings that are documented on this thumb drive. Second, vote ‘NO’ on the citizens’ question to send a message that our city is not for sale or lease to the highest bidder.”
In addition, Abrahm Mayo, an organizer of VoteYesPleaseOFallon, spoke of e-mails his group obtained through a FOIA Request that indicated a foreman at the city’s water and sewer department used his city account “for political purposes to oppose the city’s potential lease of the water and sewer system,” per a press release issued by VoteYesPleaseOFallon.
The press release further states one of the e-mails in question was dated Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, and was sent by an O’Fallon foreman using his city of O’Fallon e-mail account at 2:17 p.m. during normal business hours. Also according to the press release, it contained an invoice for $2,280 for the printing of 10,000 tri-fold “Sell Our Water and Drain Our Future” brochures.
Mayo addressed the council Monday night, echoing remarks and data from the press release.
“It appears that this city worker abused the power placed in him by taxpayers of O’Fallon who entrusted him to handle our water supply,” Mayo said. “I do not understand why certain city workers feel so threatened unless they think a private company can do the same job they perform for less cost.”
In the press release, Mayo stated, “We are disappointed that certain city workers would abuse the trust placed in them by taxpayers of O’Fallon who entrust them to run our water supply. We have sent copies of the e-mails and a letter to the Mayor, city attorney and city administrator requesting they take the necessary actions to stop city workers from using taxpayer funded resources for inappropriate activities. These e-mails are actual proof that Citizens Against the Sale or Lease of the Water System are actually city workers against the lease who are only concerned about saving their highly compensated jobs, not saving our water.”
The press release also stated that city records show the average annual income of the 19 water and sewer employees is $81,638, which includes salary, overtime and health benefits. The press release also noted the workers receive 100 percent free health insurance benefits and the taxpayers cover 80 percent of their dependent coverage, which can run up to $20,556 per family and that, when adding in the city-funded pension, the average cost per employee to tax payers is $108,772 per employee.
“The fact that certain workers felt they could use tax payer funded email accounts to mount opposition to an idea that would actually save O’Fallon residents from new taxes is very disappointing,” Travis Huber of VoteYesPleaseOFallon said in the press release. “But when you find out that 60 percent of the Public Works employees do not even live in O’Fallon, it isn’t surprising that they are not concerned over tax increases in our city.”
Several other speakers took the podium as well Monday night, including Stewart Drolet, who actually addressed the council first Monday night.
“I think the issue is much bigger than money,” Drolet said. “I would argue water and sewer is unique as far as how the costs are set. Anybody who buys it is out to make a profit. It is a monopoly. Utilities work based on their own schedule. Coordinating with a utility can be a nightmare.”
Kie Zelms, Ron’s wife and Treasurer for O’Fallon Citizens for Action, offered her thoughts.
“I’m concerned that the impression is given that the city council is proposing new taxes,” she said. “My concern is this is misleading information. Food and Water Watch (the website foodandwaterwatch.com) has well-documented research from other cities. If I could find something good about the sale/lease, I would put it out there. And there’s not a single city worker on our committee—I’m really tired of having that information 89out there.”
Terry Lysakowski, who worked 20 years at the O’Fallon Water Department, followed Kie Zelms.
“I’ve had ancestors in this town for quite some time,” he said. “My family has nine generations in this town including my kids. The city has a habit of wasting money for the new kids on the block. The only way to stop your taxes from going up in this Home Rule community is to vote no twice. Vote no twice and then follow up and voice your opinion with your alderman.”
Mike Cook went next. Cook said he had not planned to speak Monday night but decided to in defense of the city workers.
“They earn those salaries and benefits,” he said. “I take pride and I think we should all take pride in paying those wages so they can raise a family here. I’m outraged at the personal attacks against our city workers.”
Vern Malare then spoke and distributed letters to the council from the city of Fairview Heights opposing O’Fallon leasing or selling “O’Fallon’s Water Supply System to a private entity.” Fairview Heights receives water supply for most of its residents from O’Fallon.
Officially, the letter—dated Feb. 17, 2015, and addressed to Mayor Graham and the O’Fallon City Council—stated: “The City of Fairview Heights is opposed to legislation by the City of O’Fallon that would lease or sell O’Fallon’s Water Supply System to a private entity. The City of Fairview Heights believes that its residents are best served by an open, publicly accountable Water Supply System and therefore the ownership and operational control of the Water Supply System should remain with the City of O’Fallon.”
The resolution was passed unanimously by the council and signed by Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t lease it,” Malare concluded.
After residents spoke, Ward 4 Aldermen John Drolet and Herb Roach took their respective turns.
Drolet spoke first and provided data indicating the water and sewer department’s viability.
Referencing a letter to the editor in the March 12 Progress, Drolet said simply citing the water/sewer system has lost money nine of the last 17 years does not tell the whole story. For instance, he noted, there has been a positive cash flow two of the last three years ($1.9 million in revenue over three years), four of the last five years and seven of the last 11 with that total revenue at $3.5 million.
Moreover, Drolet stated, over the last 17 years the water department still has had a positive cash flow of $260,000.
“You don’t have the facts,” he said. “You’re misleading people. I think it’s a shame. Facts matter. The council has never considered the option of raising property taxes. It’s just not true. There are things to consider. The reality is you have to talk about them. We’re not given the other side of the story.”
Roach also expressed displeasure.
“I’m disturbed,” Roach said. “I’m disturbed with some of the facts Mr. Zelms brought out. It insinuates that there’s been some deliberate deception on this. It brings into question, to me, the honesty of this whole process. And it also shows to me, somewhat, of the disrespect of the members of this council.”