Newton City Commissioners had a full agenda their first night in office, discussing a variety of issues ranging from a historic preservation appeal to the allowable number of pets at city residences.
Outgoing commissioners Ken Hall and Willis Heck were recognized for their service, and incumbent Glen Davis, along with newcomers Leroy Koehn and Bob Smyth, were sworn into office.
As the receivers of the two highest vote tallies in the recent election, Koehn and Davis will serve four-year terms. Smyth will serve a two-year term. Commissioners voted to have Jim Nickel serve as mayor for the coming year, and Leroy Koehn to serve as the vice mayor.
One of the new commissioners' first items of business was an ordinance that would give a Newton resident a limited, one-time exemption to city regulations regarding the number of dogs a property owner can have.
The person, who intends to move to the city, wanted to keep five small, elderly dogs who were rescued from abuse. The resident would keep this number of dogs only for the current dogs' lifetimes.
Animal control officer Jennifer Burns recommended commissioners not approve the exemption. She said others have wanted to keep additional rescue dogs in the past, and making an exception for one person would not be fair to others who were denied in the past.
"If we do this, we're going to set this precedent," she said. "Everyone's going to want an exception."
Commissioner Davis voted in favor of granting the exemption; the other commissioners voted against it. Commissioners did vote in favor of revisiting the city's regulations on the number of allowable dogs for all residents at a future meeting. Burns said the city's two dog limit was low compared to other communities.
Commissioners also voted three to two against granting an appeal of a decision by the Joint Historic Preservation Commission. Those appealing sought approval of the installation of new fascia board and the enclosure of the opened soffits at a home in the 300 block of E. Fifth St., part of the McKinley Residential Historic District. The project was not authorized by the preservation commission due to a belief that doing so would alter the appearance of the home.
Davis and Smyth voted in favor of the exemption, with Koehn, Nickel and Commissioner Racquel Thiesen voting against.
Although following the historic preservation commission's recommendation was reported to be more expensive, Nickel said he thought it was important to preserve the character of the homes in the historic district.
Commissioners also postponed until further notice a public hearing slated for April 23 on wastewater treatment plant improvements, until city staff are able to work out additional details regarding the plan with the state. The project may be too expensive for the city, but the city may not be able to avoid the upgrades.
Director of Public Works Suzanne Loomis told commissioners there can be many reasons for a wastewater treatment plant upgrade: changes in regulations, growth of the community, and a need to rehabilitate aging structures. The city's current plant meets all three reasons and has exceeded its estimated lifetime.
Although the city may be able to take advantage of a low interest loan through the Kansas Water Pollution Control Loan Fund, the cost of the improvements could climb to about $24 million, and Loomis said this would put a burden on the community.
However, the city can't afford to not do the upgrades, either. State and federal regulations dictate the amount of “nutrients,” such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that can be discharged from the facility. If the plant were to go out of compliance, the city could face hefty fines, such as $10,000 a day.
“We don’t have the option of not doing anything," Loomis said.
Loomis plans to remain in contact with the state and hopes to reach a compromise or a more cost-effective way to meet regulations.