Town water and sewer bills to jump (7/23/09)

Selectboard approves big rate hike

July 23, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard has approved a hefty hike in water and sewer rates, passing on a price increase by regional suppliers that are coping with rising costs or falling revenue.

Water prices will rise 8.8 percent and sewer charges will go up 11.3 percent. The new water rate will be $2.40 per 1,000 gallons and the sewer rate is set at $3.45 per 1,000 gallons.

The rate hikes will increase the water and sewer bill for an average Williston residential user by $3.20 a month, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden.

With little discussion, the Selectboard on Monday night unanimously approved the rate hike. Board member Jeff Fehrs said the rate-setting exercise was a formality because the town’s water and sewer budgets were approved months ago.

“I’m not happy with these increases, but we don’t have a choice,” he said. “In order to fund the budget that was approved, we have to raise rates.”

Water rates have been driven up by decreased usage, primarily due to cutbacks at IBM, one of the state’s largest employers and the water district’s biggest customer.

IBM was using 4.8 million gallons a day at its peak nine years ago, according to the Champlain Water District. Now the company is using only about 3 million gallons a day.

It all adds up to a dramatic drop in income for the water district. Though CWD says it produced a level-funded budget for this year, fixed costs still need to be covered with less revenue.

“CWD’s budgeted water sales revenue is continuing to dramatically decline due to major changes to industrial water sales that have occurred,” Jim Fay, the water district’s general manager, wrote in an April memo.

He has said that 85 percent of the rate increase can be attributed to reduced usage by IBM.

Essex Junction originally wanted to raise sewer rates by 31 percent, but that increase was nearly halved after Williston officials complained that the village was shifting expenses from the municipal to sewer budgets. Expenses were also up, with a major breakdown at the treatment plant.

Williston urged village officials to change how they accounted for expenses and to pay off the plant’s repair bill over several years.

“The sewer rate could have been much worse than it was,” Boyden said.

The town has over the past few years kept water and sewer rates down by reducing the amount budgeted for infrastructure upkeep, Boyden said. He acknowledged the bill will one day come due for the deferred maintenance, noting that many underground pipes are decades old and sewer pump stations are nearing the end of their useful life.

The rate increase was set in motion when the Selectboard approved water and sewer budgets earlier this year. Those expenditures are funded entirely by user charges and kept separate from the municipal operating budget.

At the time, both the Champlain Water District, which supplies 11 Chittenden County municipalities and fire districts, and the village of Essex Junction, which owns the sewage treatment plant that serves Essex and Williston, had announced big rate hikes. Payments to those suppliers account for more than half of Williston’s water and sewer expenditures, with much of the remaining budget paying for infrastructure such as underground pipes and pump stations.

Water and sewer bills have risen steadily over the past few years, but the new rate increase is particularly steep. Sewer rate hikes since 2004 have ranged from 12.5 percent to 2.1 percent, although the rate remained stable last year. The water rate hike this year is the largest during that period, with the per-gallon price rising by 4.6 percent last year.

This year’s rate increase will be included when the next monthly bills are mailed in late August.