Swisher leaders say municipal water vote key to city’s development

March 7 election to consider building city’s first-ever municipal water system

Residents of Swisher will vote Tuesday, March 7 on a measure to develop a municipal water utility – a plan city officials say would bring crucial economic development benefits to the Johnson County community of just over 900 residents.

Swisher mayor Chris Taylor said the city appointed a water committee in 2019, which has worked since then with engineering firm HR Green to develop a municipal water plan. Nearly all the city’s residents currently depend entirely on private wells for their water needs, and issues have surfaced in recent years regarding water contamination, water supply for firefighting needs, and inability to serve prospective industrial and commercial clients.

Swisher residents last voted on a municipal water system in 1999, with more than 70% of residents voting against the proposal. With the city’s population expected to increase more than 120% over the next 30 years, Mr. Taylor said officials felt the time was right to revisit the concept.

“I think economic development was a big driver in trying to take a second look at this, seeing what it is costing the city currently to not have a municipal water system,” Mr. Taylor said. “We can put forth a lot of hypothetical situations, but we have actually had conversations with developers and people who want to bring certain businesses into town who ultimately were not able to do so because we couldn’t provide them with a safe municipal water system.

“We had someone who wanted to build an elder care facility that would not have been able to meet the state licensure requirements, because they wouldn’t be able to provide the level of drinking water in their facility,” he added. “We have had people who’ve come in and said we’d like to develop this area as a commercial zone, (asking) what does your water system look like? And we would have to tell them, ‘Oh, it’s all private wells.’ That can be a very hard sell for commercial developers to realize that in addition to the normal outlay, they would have to build their own private water infrastructure as well.”

If approved, calculation of water rates and construction of the $26.2 million project could begin as soon as 2024, with phased implementation over the next 20 years or more. Customer costs haven’t yet been determined, and the city plans to apply for federal grant funds if the plan is approved, but monthly rates could be in the range of $70 to $90 a month once a customer connects to the system.

Mr. Taylor said he knows the proposal has produced sharp divisions among Swisher residents, and he feel’s Tuesday’s vote will be decided by a fairly narrow margin.

“It’s a divisive issue,” Mr. Taylor said. “People feel very strongly on both sides, and we’ve been trying to be respectful of that. This is a complex enough issue that reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and come to different conclusions. And what is a priority for me as a resident might not be the same priority for one of my neighbors. So I fully expect that it will be a close vote. Some people will be happy with the way it turns out, some people will be disappointed. That’s the democratic process.”

Mr. Taylor said he’s aware that the system’s cost will be a key factor in Swisher residents’ votes, and said he hopes Swisher residents are fully informed on the plan based on a series of public information meetings over the past few weeks and extensive information on the city’s website.

“The cost is something that hits every resident close to home, and the city has not tried to hide that in any way,” Mr. Taylor said. “The single biggest downside to a project like this is going to be the cost. In my opinion, there are some upsides that may tip things – things like economic development, providing a clean water system to everyone so you’re not depending on your own private well, the firefighting component of it. These are things that are sometimes more difficult to explain as a (benefit) that you’re getting out of the system. People will be able to easily understand how it impacts their budget on a month-to-month basis. Some of the other things are a little bit more abstract.”