COLUMBIA — A long-time former Hallsville employee, Cheri Reisch, is challenging incumbent Ben Austene for mayor in Tuesday's election.
A host of issues surround the election, including problems with the local wastewater system and an eminent domain lawsuit against farmer Frank Martin. Reisch said she thinks the city is mistreating local farmers with this lawsuit, but Austene thinks the Hallsville Board of Aldermen should proceed with its plan as explained in a letter from the mayor.
The city of Hallsville was cited by the Department of Natural Resources in 2010 for discharging wastewater from the lagoon used to store sewage, which is on Martin's property, into Kelley Branch creek. Martin's land holds city-owned equipment that has been used in past years to pump city sewer water, known as land-application, from the lagoon to his farmland.
As per Department of Natural Resources requirements, no wastewater is allowed to be discharged into other bodies of water.
The board alleges that Martin did not uphold his contract to comply with the department's requirements, according to the letter. The solution the board proposes would be to acquire the 148.5 acres where the equipment is held, and make the necessary changes to comply with the department's requirements for land-application. Because Martin did not comply with those requirements, the board does not think it should have to buy the land from Martin.
The letter said Martin's proposed solution would be to expand the current land-application system, which the board said could cost up to $1.4 million.
Reisch served as the city's clerk for 30 years but was fired in late December by the Board of Aldermen in a 3-1 vote. She filed to run for mayor shortly after she was fired.
"The reason they gave me for my firing was a complaint from an unhappy utility customer who owed the city money," Reisch said, adding that the customer tried to change the bill to his son's name to get around paying the bill. "I have seen all the mismanagement of the city firsthand. I want to make a higher quality of life for the citizens who live here."
Reisch does not support the city's effort to enforce eminent domain in the lawsuit with Martin.
"The city is trying to take away the farmer's land," Reisch said. "The city came up with a sewer plan to comply with state regulations to irrigate our own water instead of the farmers doing it."
Reisch said the city has borrowed $1.5 million so far, and interest for one year will be $60,000. She said it's going to cost the city to carry out the sewer plan. The city has run up $20,000 in legal fees, she said, "and it's not over yet."
Reisch said she would do more to support local farmers if elected. Her top priority is to repair sewer lines and manholes.
"I would go with the farmer's plan to expand storage and fix the sewer lines," Reisch said. "We have to keep the rainwater out, and if we can't do that, we need to expand storage. On wet years, we have too much rain getting in there."
Reisch thinks her experience as city clerk will boost her capabilities as mayor if elected.
"I know the complete inner workings of the city," Reisch said. "I've worked closely with the police department and the public works department."
Reisch said she has no personal agenda against Austene.
"I don't want to be disparaging," Reisch said. "I can only say he reprimanded me for trying to bring in businesses to Hallsville. I was reprimanded for having a part-time job when most all city employees have part-time jobs, and he wouldn't listen to the employees."
Reisch added that Joe Smith, the current city administrator, has not been serving the people of Hallsville effectively.
"He has an inept ability and lack of knowledge of running Hallsville," Reisch said.
Reisch, 50, is a lifelong resident of Hallsville and has two sons and three granddaughters.
Incumbent Ben Austene wants to continue working on the sewer project to address the 2010citation that arose shortly after his election as mayor. Austene said he first ran for mayor to help out the community.
"I want current projects seen through to protect taxpayers' interests. I know what's going on. We're on the right path, we just need to finish it," Austene said.
The goal of the sewer project is to irrigate farm land in an environmentally-friendly way. The city is trying to involve other farmers besides Martin in the project as well. Austene also wants to try to keep monthly sewer bills stable for residents. He said these are important issues in the upcoming election.
Austene said the city has a "solid foundation" for its plans to comply with the Department of Natural Resources. He thinks his experiences with the current sewer problems will help him as mayor if he is re-elected Tuesday. He plans to address the issue of street repairs for Hallsville as well.
Components of the sewer projects include getting rid of the industrial park lift station, updating the flow monitoring and irrigating wastewater to comply with the Department of Natural Resources, according to a letter from the mayor's desk.
Austene, 37, works for a local insurance company and is a member of the Hallsville Optimist Club, an organization that works with youth in the community through fundraising and activities, and the Hallsville Masonic Lodge #336.
A native of Hallsville, Austene lives there with his wife, son and daughter.
"Born and raised here. I love this town," Austene said.