Newton and North Newton officials met Tuesday evening to discuss a dispute over North Newton’s sewer rate. Newton reported North Newton owes several hundred thousand dollars worth of unpaid sewer fees, while North Newton is unsure if the fees have been calculated fairly.

“We think that what we owe the city of Newton is yet to be determined,” said John Torline, North Newton’s city administrator. “… We should be paying basically for the services provided.”

According to the city of Newton, North Newton currently owes Newton $407,125.68, plus interest, in sewer fees. The unpaid fees were accrued after North Newton declined to pay a rate increase, paying at the old rate instead.

In 2008, the city of Newton started phasing in rate increases to keep up with increasing costs plus prepare for costly upcoming upgrades to wastewater treatment. In 2009, the city’s finance department failed to do a rate re-computation and left the North Newton rates at 2008 levels, causing two steps in the Newton rate increases to hit North Newton rates at once.

North Newton Mayor Ron Braun said in March 2010, North Newton received a one-week notice their sewer rates would be going up by 65 percent. North Newton chose not to pay the increase, and instead paid at the old rate (2008 rate). Concerns were raised the rate formula might not be fair and should reflect what it actually costs Newton to receive, transport and treat North Newton sewage.

Newton City Attorney Bob Myers reported the rate was computed in the manner North Newton had committed to in a standing agreement. Newton had the firm Knudsen Monroe review its rate computations and provide an independent opinion, which revealed some city sewer expenditures should have been included in the computations and some expenditures which should not have been included.

The city of Newton now believes North Newton owes $407,125.68, plus interest. Under Kansas law, a 10 percent interest rate would apply, but Newton staff has proposed a 1.5 percent interest rate instead.

Myers said the city perceived the situation as North Newton stopping payment in order to force negotiations.

Braun said North Newton hasn’t said they do not want to pay what they owe — they simply want to make sure they are paying the correct amount. Paul Harder of the North Newton City Council said he felt North Newton had to wait a long time to receive requested information.

“We just want to make sure that (the fee) is right, equitable and fair,” Braun said.

“North Newton wants to pay our fair share for services received,” Torline agreed.

Torline said North Newton still is waiting to receive additional documents and review the numbers for themselves. The city of North Newton will be prepared to give an official response 45 days after receiving the requested information from Newton.

Braun said in the future, it could be beneficial to sit down once a year and review Newton/North Newton agreements just to make sure everyone continues to be on the same page. He appreciated Tuesday’s joint meeting, which gave both cities a chance to share their views.

“We wish we could have been around the table and taken care of this much longer ago,” he said. “... I think this is healthy dialogue, and it helps us come to a resolution.”

Other business

At their regular meeting, Newton City Commissioners discussed an exemption to legislation allowing concealed weapons in municipal buildings. The city has the option to file for an exemption that would delay the city’s need to respond to the legislation until Jan. 1, 2014. The city must do so by July 1, 2013, in order to prevent the law from going into effect in Newton.

The legislation allows cities to either:

1. Remove "no-carry" signs and allow concealed carry in municipal buildings.

2. Provide metal detectors or wands and personnel at each public entrance, and then designate the building as “no-carry.”

3. Assess buildings and establish a security plan, giving the buildings a four-year exemption from the law.

Commissioners voted in approval of the six-month exemption.

“It seems very prudent to me to give ourselves the six months to consider this,” Commissioner Leroy Koehn said.

During the citizen’s forum portion of the meeting, community member Jason Mitchell spoke in support of allowing permitted conceal carry holders who have gone through background checks and training to carry in government buildings.

He said a “no-carry” sign will not stop a person who enters city hall to commit a violent act, and he said many people feel the need for extra protection.

“Continuing to take away my ability to defend myself within state law is harmful to the citizens, is harmful to me,” Mitchell said.