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What is the future of city water in Swisher? Voters to decide March 7
Proposal seeks to address growth, improve fire response, address contaminated water
SWISHER — Swisher residents will be asked next month if the city should establish a public water system instead of relying on private wells.
The conversation comes ahead of anticipated growth, a desire to improve fire response and concerns about contaminated water. It’s a renewed discussion after voters rejected a similar measure two decades ago.
The Jefferson-Monroe Fire Department is the only fire department in Johnson County without a public water system, fire chief Glen Heims said. Having public water, which includes fire hydrants, would allow the department to be better prepared to help current and future residents.
The population of Swisher, located in northern Johnson County, immediately west of Interstate 380, could nearly triple by 2045.
HR Green, an engineering firm working with the city, estimates the population could grow to 2,280 by 2045. The city’s population was 914 in 2020.
If approved, the $19.2 million public water project would be split into two phases. The first phase, estimated at $5.2 million, would address immediate, short-term needs, including building two public wells and a water tower. The first phase would be implemented over three to five years.
The second phase, estimated to cost just under $14 million, would focus on long-term needs — such as building out the distribution system and adding more wells as needed — and be implemented over the next 10 to 20 years.
The project would be funded by user rates, which residents have raised concerns about at public meetings, as well as other uncertainties. If the measure passes, monthly costs estimated at $46 per residence would begin next year.
The city intends to pursue state and federal funding to help offset user costs.
HR Green has held two public information meetings for residents about the project. Two additional public information meetings are scheduled for this week on Feb. 22 and Feb. 26 before residents head to the polls on March 7.
“We need to hear from everyone,” Mayor Chris Taylor said, adding the council has been very intentional about not encouraging one outcome over another.
“We understand that ultimately this is up to residents, and the best the city can do is to make sure that when all is said and done people feel like they were well-informed going into that vote on (March 7),” Taylor said.
I’m a Swisher resident. How can I vote on March 7?
Polls will be open Tuesday, March 7, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Shueyville United Methodist Church, 1195 Steeple Lane NE.
Early voting is available at the auditor’s office, 913 S. Dubuque St. in Iowa City, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through March 6.
Only residents residing within Swisher city limits are eligible to vote in this election. Residents with a Swisher address who live outside of city limits are not part of the vote. Individuals can check their address on the Johnson County Auditor’s website.
A sample ballot can be found on the county auditor’s website. The ballot language will be: "Shall the City of Swisher, in Johnson County, Iowa establish a Municipal Waterworks Utility managed by the City Council to operate a municipal water system?"
Voting “yes” would allow the city to establish a public water system. In order to pass, a simple majority vote of 50 percent plus one vote is needed.
How did we get here?
Most Swisher city residents are served by private wells, but the city does have some public water systems, Josh Scanlon with HR Green said during a public information meeting. There are seven public water systems and about 95 private wells.
Among the goals is to consolidate all that into one water system, referred to as public water or municipal water.
A public water system is year-round, serves more than 25 people and is governed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. It is required to meet federal drinking water standards.
A private well doesn’t meet the population requirements of a public water system and is regulated by a local board of health, which in this case is the Johnson County Board of Health.
The city had a previous special election to develop a municipal water system in February 1999. The measure failed with 72 percent of voters voting “no,” and 28 percent voting “yes.” A total of 395 residents voted, according to Johnson County archives.
In 2019, there was a renewed interest to explore the possibility of a municipal water system, and a water feasibility committee was formed.
Cedar Rapids-based HR Green was hired to evaluate alternatives for water supply, treatment, storage and distribution, as well as conduct a water system study. The firm has explored what infrastructure would be needed to move forward with a public water system if approved by voters.
A preliminary study considered service from the city of Cedar Rapids, city of North Liberty and Poweshiek Water Association. However, water service from these communities was not possible because of capacity limitations, logistics and costs, Scanlon said.
I still have questions. How can I learn more?
HR Green has hosted public information meetings about the project, and the third meeting is coming up on Feb. 22. Residents with questions or who want to learn more are invited to attend.
The third meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at American Legion, 68 Third Street SW in Swisher. A fourth meeting date was added and will be held at the American Legion on Sunday, Feb. 26. The meeting will begin at 3 p.m.
Residents can attend in-person or join by Zoom. Instructions on how to join via Zoom are on the city’s website at swisheria.org.
Also on the city’s website are recordings from the first two information meetings that were held on Jan. 25 and Feb. 8. There are also several documents, including a fact sheet, frequently asked questions and engineering reports prepared by HR Green.
“What we have tried to do from the very beginning is to provide the best objective information that we possibly can and ultimately trust the residents to make their own decisions,” Mayor Chris Taylor said.
Questions can be submitted to the city by email at email@example.com or by calling 319-857-4539.
Two proposed developments signal population growth
The city’s anticipated growth is among the reasons for the renewed conversation.
There is a proposed 80-acre development in the northern part of the city and a proposed 30-acre development on the west side. This land has already been annexed by the city to be developed as housing.
Together, it’s predicted these two developments would add 457 lots and an increase of 1,300 residents.
Taylor said the discussion about the two developments lined up with the ongoing discussion about the city’s water.
The developers will already need to build out a water system for the area. If a public water system were to be approved, this would be an opportunity to expand the infrastructure for the whole city, Scanlon said.
Taylor said a public water system would prepare the city to address future growth and other challenges.
“We have people that come to council meetings, I hear it very often, someone says ‘I've lived in Swisher my entire life.’ My kids have lived in Swisher their entire lives, and if I want them to be able to say that 40 or 50 years from now that they still have lived in Swisher their entire lives, this is an opportunity right now for us to help prepare that future for them,” Taylor said.
Fire protection, addressing water contamination
The Jefferson-Monroe Fire Department, which serves Swisher, Shueyville, Jefferson and Monroe districts, supports establishing a municipal water system.
“A municipal water system will allow our fire department to connect to a reliable pressurized water supply to effectively use our responding personnel in controlling the fire and make for a safer city,” the department said in a statement.
Currently, responding firefighters truck water to and from the scene.
Heims, the fire chief, said when firefighters need to leave to get more water — which typically means going to the closest hydrant in Cedar Rapids — it can take 17 to 20 minutes. The department gets assistance on calls from neighboring fire departments through mutual aid agreements.
Municipal water would mean having fire hydrants providing water at the location.
“As a chief of a fire department, there are zero negatives to bringing in city water,” Heims said.
Heims, who was on the water committee, added that not only would public water address fire safety but also public health. Health benefits with a public water system include increased monitoring and additional water sampling.
An emerging contaminant in drinking water in wells has been per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They’re often called “forever chemicals” because their molecular structures are made of strong bonds, so they don’t degrade easily.
PFAS has been detected in private wells in the areas between Swisher and The Eastern Iowa Airport. The city has been notified of three wells testing positive for PFAS within city limits and one outside of city limits.
A public water system also is designed to maintain operations without interruption of service during severe weather events, such as the derecho in August 2020. Having water available for residents and for the fire department gives the city opportunity to attract new businesses and development projects, Scanlon said.
What if the vote fails?
If the vote fails, Taylor said the questions and concerns brought up during the water discussion — such as improving fire response and addressing contaminated water — will still need solutions.
The city would need to wait at least four years before the issue can be put on the ballot again, Taylor said.
What if the vote passes?
If the vote passes, the city council will work with a municipal adviser to apply for the loans, establish a rate structure to pay back the loan, as well as work with engineers on the design process, Taylor said.
There will be public hearings throughout the process so the community can be involved in the city council’s discussions, Taylor said.
A possible rate structure could be a monthly rate for residents that would be used for initial capital improvements, as well as an additional flat rate for water service that would turn into metered use once the water system is completed.
Estimates from HR Green earlier this month indicate residents could pay $46 per month in the first phase and $117 per month during the second phase. Payments would not start until 2024, Taylor said.
Scanlon said support from state and federal grants would reduce the monthly customer cost.
“We'll be looking for any opportunity to take advantage of these grants or other types of funding mechanisms to reduce those costs as much as possible,” Scanlon said.
Existing private wells would likely be allowed to remain in operation during an implementation period as the water system is built out, according to HR Green.
Once the municipal water system is complete, private wells could remain for irrigation use or be considered as part of a well buyback program to connect to the municipal water system.
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