BRATTLEBORO—Officials with the Town Manager’s office and the Department of Public Works proposed an increase for the water and sewer rates for Fiscal Year 2019.
These increases — 6 percent for sewer and 2 percent for water — will end a five-year cycle of the same raises and is covered by an ordinance the Selectboard approved in 2014.
This proposal came during the FY19 utility fund budget talks at the May 1 regular Selectboard meeting. The Board will continue the discussion during the regular June meetings. They must make their final determination whether to approve the budget before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Town Manager Peter B. Elwell explained that the yearly increases covered the expenses associated with operating the town’s water and sewer systems and include paying for significant upgrades to the town’s wastewater treatment plant five years ago.
“We recognize that it’s been substantial increases in order to keep up with the debt service” on that project, Elwell said.
The steady, consistent rate raises also provided a $4 million reserve fund “for the kinds of surprises that can pop up,” he said. Elwell noted these surprises “can be very expensive and urgent.”
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor questioned the need for such a large reserve.
While there’s no accepted standard for a water/sewer reserve fund, “we believe it’s prudent to retain around a $4 million balance,” said Elwell, especially because some elements of the town’s system are very old, and it’s a crucial public health need.
Next on the docket is a major upgrade to the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment Plant, with a “very preliminary” estimate of the town needing a $7.5 million bond for the project, Elwell said.
Staff with the Department of Public Works and the Town Manager’s office recommend the Selectboard leave the ordinance, and the rate increases, the way they are for the duration of the five-year cycle, which ends at the conclusion of FY19.
Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett told Board members they can revisit the utility budget next year and choose different rate increases for sewer and water if they choose. Barrett also noted any funds not spent at the end of the budget year go back into the utilities.
The projected financial forecast supplied by Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland showed no rate increase for sewer use, and a 6 percent increase for water use, for fiscal years 2020 through 2023.
“To the consumer,” Elwell said, the 6 percent increase in the water bill has “only about half as much impact as a 6 percent increase on the sewer side.”
Selectboard member Tim Wessel supported reducing the rate increases for FY19 by half. He noted these raises aren’t one-time changes, and that over five years the sewer rate has gone up 30 percent. “The rates are tough on people. It’s something to look at,” he said.
Board members Shanta Lee Gander and Brandie Starr advocated for finishing out the five-year cycle. Gander noted the town has an upcoming upgrade to the drinking water treatment facility.
Barrett reminded Selectboard members that for a time before the Board passed the ordinance five years ago, “the rates were artificially low.”
“It wasn’t the best way to treat a utility fund,” he said, and this led to deficits in recent years.
Implementing incremental, consistent rate increases, Barrett said, kept “the flow consistent.”