Water, sewer rates rising again (2/4/10)

Bills projected to increase by 12 percent

Feb. 4, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Water and sewer bills in Williston will jump by about 12 percent starting in July as the town passes along rising wholesale prices to consumers.

The Selectboard last week approved fiscal year 2010-11 budgets for the water and sewer departments. The budget includes revenue from a projected double-digit rate hike, which would increase the average user’s quarterly water and sewer bill by $12.24, according to Public Works Director Bruce Hoar.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said he had little choice but to approve water and sewer budgets — and agree to the resulting rate hikes — because what the town itself pays is rising.

“I’m reluctant, but I’m going to vote for this budget because it’s essentially out of the town’s hands,” Fehrs said.

Williston’s municipal water comes from the Champlain Water District. Sewage is processed by the treatment plant owned by the village of Essex Junction. Williston is responsible for maintaining infrastructure such as underground pipes and pump stations, generally those within town limits.

Hoar told the board in early January that the rising rates — 12 percent for water, 11.6 percent for sewer — reflected higher wholesale prices charged by the water district and the treatment plant. The wholesale water rate was projected to rise by 3.5 percent; the sewer rate by 14 percent.

Fehrs asked why the water rates charged by the town are jumping by a much larger percentage than Champlain Water District’s wholesale price.

Finance Director Susan Lamb said that was due in part to the fact that the charges Williston pays for its water supply make up such a large share — about half — of the entire water budget.

Usage has dropped considerably over the past couple of years, a trend officials attribute to recession-driven reduction in water and sewer consumption by businesses. Falling usage puts the water district and the village of Essex Junction in a budget bind because they have less revenue but the same fixed costs.

The Selectboard’s approval of the water and sewer budget is not the last word on rates. Before the fiscal year begins on July 1, the board will officially set rates, which in years past have varied little from those projected in budgets passed months earlier.

Williston officials have repeatedly noted that the town’s water and sewer rates are the lowest in Chittenden County. But they warn that even if use and thus revenue rebounds, they may have to keep hiking prices to maintain aging infrastructure.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said recently there have been water main breaks on Mountain View Road and U.S. 2. Both occurred after bolts holding sections of pipes together failed.

McGuire and Hoar told the Selectboard that the town will need to set aside more money in future years for numerous water and sewer projects.

“Keeping rates down is all well and good for users,” Hoar told the Selectboard. “Everybody, including myself, likes lower bills. But we also need to start adding to rates so we can build reserves and do projects that are going to be coming up.”