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By Carmen Ensinger
With the expectation of higher natural gas prices again this winter, municipalities who purchase their own natural gas are being urged, through their suppliers, to hedge more than normal this year so consumers aren’t faced with a situation like last year which saw utility bills reach up to $1,000 or more for some customers in a single month.
Hedging is an investment that is made with the intention of reducing the risk of adverse price movements in an asset. In this case, natural gas. Normally, a hedge consists of taking an offsetting or opposite position in a related security.
“We don’t want to go through that horrible mess we went through in February again this coming year,” Winchester Mayor Rex McIntire told the council at the Nov. 3 meeting. “We normally hedge 60 percent of our minimum, but after talking with our gas suppliers, we went ahead and hedged 100 percent of our minimum.”
McIntire said the only way the city could get in trouble is if the price went down and he certainly doesn’t foresee that happening.
“Hopefully, this will take care of the problem we had last year,” he said. “I didn’t have a chance to talk to him about possibly getting back some of our money from the attorney’s fighting for us.”
McIntire is referring to the class-action suit that Winchester joined with other municipalities suing the gas supplier for the exorbitant transport fees that resulted in the raised gas prices to the consumers.
“He thought it is pretty well settled now waiting on the judge to make the ruling,” McIntire said. “In all his 30 plus years, he said he has never seen over a four percent increase given on transport fees. They increased the transport fees 400 percent.”
McIntire said he thinks there should be some money coming back to the city. Then the problem would be to figure out how to disperse it to the residents. One alderman thought it should be a credit on their utility bill and the rest of the council agreed.
The council instructed City Attorney John Paul Coonrod to come up with a policy on new hires that would require them to commit a certain amount of time to the city before they could leave, if they are put through training by the city, at the city’s expense.
The reason for the new policy is because the city has lost its new water operator that it spent a significant amount of money on putting through training. He accepted a position with American Water after attending a water conference.
“I’m very upset about what is happening right now,” McIntire said. “These big guys like American Water have been buying up these small-town water systems and for several years now they have had vendors setting up at these water conferences taking away our guys that we train.”
Companies like American Water are in a much better position to offer more money and better benefits than small municipalities. These municipalities spend thousands of dollars to train guys to get their water licenses and then the big companies come in and lure the guys away because they already have their licenses and they don’t have to take the time and money to train them themselves.
“From now on, I think if we hire someone and we pay out money to get them trained and licensed, whether it be as a police officer or as a water or sewer operator, we need to get reimbursed if they leave us too early,” McIntire said. “I don’t think it is right for us to pay for schooling to get these guys licenses and then someone come in an serenade them and then they leave.”
With the water plant without a water operator, the city will once again have to operate under the license of Jaime Headon with Benton and Associates until they can get another person licensed.
Utility Superintendent John Simmons has someone in mind who works and is licensed in the sewer department. He wants to move him to the water department, which will leave an opening in the sewer department. This person will be able take the water licensing test on Jan. 11.
The city is looking to hire two new employees, one for the water department and one for the sewer department.
McIntire gave an update on the Verizon tower located out by the lagoons.
“It is a pretty nice tower,” he said. “Their lease started Nov. 1 and it is a 5-year lease at $500 a month and it will increase our service here. It is supposed to be going online right away.”
A discussion was held about condemnation of houses in town, especially one on Commercial Street which FS was wanting to buy.
“FS thought that they had an agreement with the family but it fell through,” McIntire said. “I tried contacting the family and talked to one of the daughters a month ago and she was going to call FS and get with them and I’ve not heard from her since. I tried her last week and she won’t answer my calls now.”
McIntire said FS thought they had an agreement with the family but then they didn’t show up for the closing.
McIntire said that the city has the signed agreement with Dollar General and that they still want to go ahead with the project. Tim Obrien, who works with the development firm, asked about the gas line and McIntire told him the city would provide the gas main to the site. He also asked what the speed limit was in front of where the new site.
“I asked John Paul to look into extending the 45-mph speed limit out to that area a couple years ago and the State didn’t want to do that,” McIntire said. “But if we let them know we are going to have a new Dollar General coming off Commercial Street plus the new subdivision where the old Blue Villa was, they might change their mind.”
Coonrod said he would check with IDOT again.
The council approved purchasing a $50 one-quarter page ad in the Winchester High School yearbook.