LPA General Manager Provides Updates, Answers Questions

By Susan Thompson

Two topics drew the most attention at a “Coffee with the GM” session March 9 — 2018 property assessment notices from the Guthrie County Assessor, and upgrades needed at the LPA water plant.

About 45 people attended the meeting at the Lake Panorama National conference center, where John Rutledge, LPA general manager, provided updates and responded to audience questions.

In March 2014, Vanguard Appraisals, Inc. of Cedar Rapids was awarded the contract to reappraise all Lake Panorama residential property in Guthrie County. Over the last year, company representatives measured and attempted to inspect all residential property at the lake. A sales analysis and a review of the information collected were reviewed and property values finalized.

Notices of these new values were mailed to Lake Panorama property owners in mid-February. Several members attending the GM coffee talked about the sharp increases in their assessments.

Rutledge reported he had a meeting with the county assessor, first to review the assessments on 250 parcels of land owned by the LPA. Next, he said he wanted to make sure Lake Panorama hadn’t been “singled out” by having reappraisals ordered when the same hasn’t been done in the remainder of Guthrie County.

Nikki Carrick, Guthrie County Assessor, told Rutledge all residential properties in Guthrie County will be revalued for either the 2018 or 2019 year. All rural residential property, including Lake Panorama, was completed for 2018, with all residential properties within city limits being completed for 2019.

Some of this work has been done in-house by assessor’s staff, however, Carrick assured Rutledge the Guthrie County Board of Review is considering hiring Vanguard to do reappraisal of the in-house work in a few years.

“The other thing I asked is how Vanguard is paid, as there has been some talk of them getting paid a higher rate for properties where they determine a higher assessment. I was assured the company is paid a flat fee on each property, without any sort of commission for higher assessments,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge explained this reappraisal process is the result of a state mandate, which every two years requires sales data and real estate assessments to be within 5 percent of each other. Since 2013, between one-half and two-thirds of the residential property sales in Guthrie County have been more than 5 percent higher than assessed value.

Rutledge encouraged those concerned about their new assessments to take advantage of appeal options. Informal meetings currently are being held with Vanguard at the assessor’s office. If a change in value is made based upon these meetings, a notice will be mailed by April 1. If a property owner does not receive a notice, it means no change in assessment was made.

Property owners who have not met with the assessor still have a couple of opportunities to do so. Iowa law provides for an informal review process that occurs between April 2 and April 25. Property owners simply need to call the assessor’s office and request an opportunity to meet and discuss the valuation.

Property owners who are unhappy with the results of an informal protest can file a written, formal protest between April 2 and April 30. This entitles the property owner to a visit from the Board of Review, which will consider an adjustment. As part of a formal review, the five-member board will come to the home to do their own inspection.

Rutledge strongly advised property owners to reach out to the Guthrie County assessor’s office and ask for their property detail, or property card. “They are good people who are just trying to do their job. If you give them a call and keep a cool head, they will do their best to explain the process and advise you of your options. If you have concerns, you should plan on giving them a call April 2 to determine the status of your valuation and your options for protest,” he said.

Rutledge advised those who plan to protest, either informally or formally, to be ready to provide fact-based information on why the property owner believes the assessment is too high. This could include such things as the steepness of a lot, or how the assessment compares to recent sales of nearby properties. Some members in attendance said they are hiring appraisal companies to help prepare for their protest.

A question was asked about whether the additional property taxes that will result from this reappraisal process might benefit Lake Panorama. Rutledge said the good news is approximately 35 percent of every new dollar in property taxes is returned to the Lake Panorama Rural Improvement Zone (RIZ). RIZ uses those funds to support dredging and other water quality efforts on Lake Panorama. So an increased in property values will result in additional RIZ funds.

Turning to the LPA water plant, Rutledge provided some historical information. The first source of Lake Panorama community water was a Jordan well drilled over 2,000 feet deep, and put into service in 1970. The Jordan aquifer provides abundant water, but is high in minerals, which makes it very hard.

In the late 1980s, LPA needed to respond to new regulations regarding community water systems. At that time, engineers recommended drilling two new wells into the Dakota aquifer, which is about 250 feet deep. This water isn’t as hard, so water from these two wells was blended with water from the Jordan well.

Rutledge said this worked until about 2005, when the 35-year-old Jordan well started to fail, and had to be closed. This meant full reliance on the Dakota wells, until a new Jordan well was added in 2009. Blending again worked for a while, but then some customers began to experience periods of “black” water.

Rutledge said it’s been a challenge to continue to blend the Jordan and Dakota water, because the Dakota wells provide water that will spike unexpectedly in iron and manganese. An engineering report recommends closing the two Dakota wells, and drilling a second Jordan well.

“The Dakota wells have been giving us trouble for over a decade,” Rutledge said. “We’ve tried everything we can to make them work and have reached the point where we must recognize they are not a viable source of water for LPA’s future.”

Because the water from the Jordan aquifer is so high in mineral content, engineers also recommend installing a reverse osmosis system at the water plant. “The industry standard for hardness is 120-140 milligrams per liter. The water pulled from just a Jordan well is usually 12 times the industry standard,” Rutledge said.

A reverse osmosis system would strip out the radium and hydrogen sulfide. A pilot plant operated at the water plant last fall showed this type of system would provide water hardness within the industry standard.

Rutledge said this would result in the LPA water company providing much softer water than is possible currently. Homeowners with water softeners might still want to soften their water further, which means member investment in private in-home softeners is not wasted.

“At the very least, they will be using much less salt and electricity to operate their softeners,” Rutledge said. “And the life of other appliances, especially hot water heaters, will be extended.”

“But this project isn’t about softer water, it’s about making sure we have an ample supply of treated water for our members,” Rutledge said. “The water softening would simply be a benefit of the treatment process.”

“We are getting by, but those two wells are going to give out sometime,” he said. “If the LPA board approves a plan to move forward, it will be at least 18 months and perhaps two years before the water plant upgrades could be completed.”  

The estimated cost of a new Jordan well plus related water plant upgrades is $3.6 million. The LPA board earlier approved applying for a State of Iowa revolving loan fund that would make it possible to borrow money on a 20-year loan at 2 percent interest.

The state revolving loan process has a number of benchmarks, the first of which is on March 20. Rutledge noted LPA will have a good indication on the possibility of this loan in a couple of weeks.

Rutledge said if the loan is approved, he expects the LPA board will proceed with the new well this fall and the water plant upgrades next spring. Then the question will be how to pay off the loan.

An increase in rates for water customers will need to occur to fund the repayment of this loan, and is capable of fully funding the project. However, Rutledge noted strong board and member survey support for the incorporation of a flat assessment to fund some of the project.  

This assessment could be voted on by the members to ensure all LPA members contribute something to the project. Rutledge noted the assessment could provide for early payoff of the loan and would lessen the amount of rate increases incurred by homeowners.

“The feedback I’ve received from the board and membership survey indicates support for a blended approach to funding this project,” he said. “The preferred approach seems to be a reasonable rate increase coupled with a reasonable flat assessment against all memberships. I’ve found very little support for funding this exclusively with one or the other.”

An assessment on all property owners would need to be voted on by the membership. Rutledge said once the LPA board makes a decision to move ahead with the project, discussions will continue on the funding options.

Other topics Rutledge touched on during the meeting:

·      The LPA road embargo is expected to last until at least March 23, and could go longer. Members not yet receiving the Panorama Prompt e-newsletter, which comes out each Wednesday, should contact the LPA office to get signed up. That is the best way to stay informed on things such as the road embargo.

·      The LPA has been following discussions in this year’s Iowa legislative session on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. Changes to TIF law could have a negative impact on the Lake Panorama RIZ. So far, no serious concerns exist.

·      The Iowa Legislature passed a comprehensive water quality bill, which was signed by Governor Reynolds. It’s expected the Lake Panorama RIZ will be in a good position to apply for and receive financial assistance for water quality projects, such as wetlands that slow runoff into the lake.

·      So far, five candidates have taken out papers to run for two seats on the LPA board. They are Emily Donovan, Andy Harrelson, Todd Hyde, Jason Grossman and Rich Schumacher. Rutledge said the LPA membership is lucky to have five quality individuals running in this year’s board election.

·      The LPA board of directors did not meet in January and February. Its next meeting is March 20.

·      Rutledge said the possibility of the LPA helping facilitate additional condo development near the LPN golf course, plus replacement of the aging LPA maintenance shop, are topics that will be addressed in 2018. 

·      A membership survey conducted last fall is being analyzed. Ninety percent of respondents own a home at Lake Panorama, with the other 10 percent owning just a lot. Two-thirds of respondents said the cost of living at Lake Panorama is either good or excellent. Considering the leadership of both LPA staff and board of directors, 85 percent said they believe it is either good or excellent. Ninety-eight percent said they are somewhat or very likely to recommend Lake Panorama to a friend or family members. Two-thirds said they support the proposed upgrades to the LPA water plant.

The recent arrest of a man on Lake Panorama property charged with kidnapping and assault was discussed. Rutledge said neither the man nor the primary victim are Lake Panorama members, but the man had been staying at the house of a member. He praised the response and cooperation of the Guthrie County Sheriff, Panora Police, Iowa State Patrol, Iowa State DOT and LPA Security during the investigation and arrest.

Jerry Armstrong, LPA Security Supervisor, said LPA doesn’t have a formal neighborhood watch program. But it was a call to LPA Security from a member who thought something was suspicious that led to the man’s arrest. “Don’t hesitate to give us a call anytime, day or night, if you think something isn’t right,” Armstrong said. “You can really make a difference in helping us keep Lake Panorama safe.”    

Rutledge thanked the members for their attendance and encouraged them to watch the Panorama Prompt for upcoming GM coffee dates throughout 2018.