Utility rate increases are "inevitable" as Blackwell Council hears major improvements for 2023

by Charles Gerian

The City of Blackwell met Thursday for a long day of budget discussions, a public hearing and a regular meeting of the Blackwell City Council.

Thursday’s budget talks were the first of several planned days of discussion. The discussions began with Russ Meacham, the City of Blackwell’s chief financial officer, giving a warning that utility rate increases were an inevitability rather than a choice.

Meacham said Blackwell’s sales tax revenue, while consistently reliable, isn’t going to save the city from covering costs.

“This can’t continue year-in, year-out,” Meacham said.

He told the Council that a 2.5% utility rate increase is necessary to help the city with expenses specifically related to capital improvement projects, such as road and other infrastructure improvements.

Meacham said the city is several years and several millions of dollars behind on significant infrastructure improvements because it has not raised utility rates.

No utility rate increases were confirmed, however, and the information was simply presented to the Council.

The Council also discussed raises for city employees when factoring in budgetary talks.

In terms of current infrastructure improvement, City Manager Jerry Wieland said he was excited to talk about the Streets & Parks Department’s extensive repaving project for west Blackwell Avenue from Main Street to 13th Street, which he and Chuck Anderson, who leads the department, have been preparing for.

In the future, Anderson and Wieland said 6th Street is a top priority to repave as well.

“We’re very excited for the changes coming to our streets,” Wieland said. “Mr. Anderson and I feel like this will benefit the community tremendously.”

Also discussed was Fire Station No. 2, located on 13th Street. When fully realized, the station will improve the City of Blackwell’s ISO rating.

An ISO rating, determined by the Oklahoma State Insurance Department, evaluates a community fire department’s response time and other factors in regards to fire prevention.

Insurance companies use this information to help establish fair premiums for fire insurance — generally offering lower premiums in communities with better protection.

The program also provides help for fire departments and other public officials as they plan, budget for and justify improvements.

“Having Fire Station 2 will improve our response time tremendously, especially to Blackwell Elementary School, Hillcrest nursing home and the interstate, where a majority of our calls come from,” Wieland said.

Also in the cards for the City of Blackwell’s 2023-2024 Fiscal Year is a complete replacement of all street lights in town, which will be undertaken by the city electrical department.

Greg Sixkiller, who leads the department, said the current lights throughout the city are a “hodge-podge” of LED lights and traditional lights. By changing all of them to more cost-efficient LED lights, the city will save a significant amount of money on electrical costs.

Another major change coming is the repair of the city’s diversion dam as well as a water-pressure improvement project on the north side of town.

“This will improve water pressure in the north part of town and will also help with our ISO rating,” Wieland said.

The Blackwell Police Department will be investing in red-dot sights for rifles. Wieland said that, with the “way of the world,” safety and emergency response is on everyone’s minds.

Wieland said the current influx of big-ticket items came from the departments themselves, not him.

“All of these extensive projects were brought to me,” Wieland said. “So, I want to recognize the work that all of our department heads are doing with assessing Blackwell’s needs and bringing these projects to us. I am continually impressed with the work these gentlemen and their departments are doing for our community.”

The Council circled back briefly to talk more about repairs for 6th Street and Chrysler Avenue. Anderson said those streets are also a part of the five-year plan he and other departments discussed with Wieland.

The meeting ended after roughly an hour.

The city’s Fiscal Year 2023-2024 budget will be finalized by June 23.

The City of Blackwell has yet to announce the date of the next meeting, but it will be open to the public as well.