NEW CASTLE — The town council here is trying to come up with ways to make it easier, and less costly, for businesses to start up and make a go of it, by concentrating on improving the municipal website and more closely matching the costs of water and sewer service to the actual amount of use by a customer.
Both concepts, which could represent internal changes in how the town does business with businesses and residents, have been under discussion for months, and it now appears that those discussions may soon bear fruit in the form of ordinances and action.
Marketing on the Web
The website redesign is being handled by Ann Stuckey, wife of Trustee Patrick Stuckey and president of AJ Design and Associates, which was selected by a public application process. The project, said Town Administrator Tom Baker, is “driven by marketing and advertising” of both the town in general and the businesses within it.
Ann Stuckey was credited with doing a lot of the work “pro-bono,” meaning for free, according to a statement by Baker at a council meeting on Tuesday. The town has budgeted more than $17,000 for the project this year, and Baker wrote in an email that Stuckey is expected to bill for some of her time spent so far, possibly “about $3,000.”
Stuckey has made several presentations to the council this year about the website improvements, which has been dubbed the Expose New Castle project.
“We’re going to try to get as much information as we can into the website,” she told the council on Tuesday, adding that “we want to make it as easily updatable as possible” so it can be done by town staff without too much trouble.
Stuckey outlined the current status of her proposed improvements, which include buttons and click-boxes to direct visitors to either the town government and its programs, or to find local businesses, recreational activities, and a carousel of historical photos, among other features.
With a variety of interactive features planned, Stuckey said, “We want to try to make it so the community feels like it’s part of the town, part of how the town is run.”
Several council members offered suggestions about changes they felt would help Stuckey’s plans, including a quick debate about what to name the button that leads visitors to government departments, personnel and programs.
“People have a thing about ‘government,’” she remarked to the council, indicating that a more welcoming label might encourage more people to click on that button.
“What about, ‘What Government Does For You?’” suggested Councilor Greg Russi, “because it seems like everything we do is a program.” The idea was immediately discarded as too long.
But Stuckey urged the councilors to mull over this and any other suggestions, and bring them to her soon.
“This year, in the budget, what we’re trying to get accomplished is to get it started,” she said of a new and improved New Castle town website. At some point, she said, she would like to sit down with department heads from Town Hall to discuss their ideas and impressions about the old website and how it can be improved.
Baker wrote in an email that the council was “comfortable” moving forward with the Expose New Castle project, and that he will be working on a project budget and timeline for future council consideration.
The council also has been discussing the idea of adjusting what are known as EQRs, or the money paid by businesses and homeowners to tap into the town’s water and sewer systems.
Two council members in particular, Bob Gordon and Bruce Leland, have been the primary promoters of the idea, said Baker, which like the improved website is geared toward providing a boost to economic development by helping businesses get established and stay in business.
Baker said on Wednesday that the current regulations set 1 EQR — which stands for “equivalency ratio” — representing an allotment of 12,000 gallons per month. If a customer uses more than that in a given month, that customer must pay the town’s monthly rate for water and sewer service.
That monthly rate is a “sliding scale” with the operating principle, “The more you use, the more you have to pay per amount of water,” explained Baker. The town starts from a single EQR allotment of 12,000 gallons per month (6,000 gallons of water, 6,000 gallons of sewerage) for $24. Above that level, customers pay $2.25 per thousand gallons up to 20,000 gallons, $3.50 per thousand up to 30,000 gallons, $7 per 1,000 up to 40,000 gallons, and $21 per thousand above 40,000 gallons per month in usage.
“It can get expensive,” said Baker, referring to a business that, for example, bought a single EQR but found itself using thousands of gallons more than expected.
“It’s a structural problem,” said Leland of the town’s water and sewer charges, noting that restaurants typically have many more seats than are filled by customers at any given time, but restaurants are made to buy their water and sewer taps on a per-seat basis.
“For the Chili’s and Red Lobsters of the world, that’s a cost that’s just built in to their businesses,” noted Councilor Art Riddile. “But we have a different animal here.”
Riddile said he believes the town should “dial it back a little bit” in terms of the amount of money charged for water and sewer services.
Councilor Gordon suggested the town lower the billing rates for water and sewer, leaving the water and sewer tap fees as they are to avoid offending those who paid their tap fees under the existing system.
Public Works Director John Wentzel recommended the council modify the payment system to permit customers to buy a single tap before opening their business, then see what their usage is like and buy another tap, or more than one more, once they see what they really need.
“Why not let the market drive itself,” Wentzel asked, and several councilors responded enthusiastically.
“I like that idea,” declared Mayor Frank Breslin.
Baker said he would work on a proposed ordinance based on the discussion and bring it back before the council at a future meeting.