BARRE — They aren’t covering costs, and absent the multi-year rate increase approved by city councilors this week that problem would have been exacerbated, but Barre’s sewer rates aren’t as “shockingly low” some have suggested.
That doesn’t mean the rate adjustments weren’t warranted.
In order to address what has become an annual operating deficit in the sewer fund and absorb significant new expenses — some of which were approved by voters and all of which are unavoidable — the series of increases blessed by councilors Tuesday night were required.
However, the suggestion Barre’s two-tiered sewer rate was woefully low compared to other Vermont communities appears to be misleading at best based on an analysis performed by city staff.
Water rates aside, heading into Tuesday night’s meeting the city was charging its sewer customers $2.70-per-100-cubic feet of wastewater they generate — a rate that will more than double over the next four years based on the newly approved plan. The first in a series of four 20% increases is being used to calculate bills that will soon be mailed and the consumption-based rate now stands at $3.24-per-100-cubic feet.
According to the staff analysis, that’s significantly lower than the comparable rate — $5.82-per-$100-cubic feet — now being charged in Burlington. In fact, following a series of annual 20 percent increases the rate would be lower in Barre four years from now — $5.60-per-100-cubic feet — than it is in Burlington today.
Those numbers seem to buttress Councilor Rich Morey’s “shockingly low” claim, but they only tell half the story.
According to the staff analysis, Burlington raises all of its sewer revenue with the consumption-based rate, while Barre levies an additional ready to serve charge that is assessed quarterly whether its sewer customers ever flush a toilet, take a shower or wash a dish.
That matters, because while there is a wide divide in how much sewer customers in Barre and Burlington are charged for the wastewater they generate, the customer in Barre was already paying more on a quarterly basis for that service before the first of four 20 percent increases went into effect on Tuesday.
According to the staff analysis, a Burlington customers that generate 1,150 cubic feet of wastewater a quarter would see a corresponding rate-based charges of $66.93 included in their water and sewer bills.
A comparable customer in Barre would have paid $75.33 for generating the same amount of wastewater under the old rates and will be billed $83.31 under the newly approved ones.
However, more than half of Barre’s sewer charge — $46.05 — is tied to the quarterly “base” charge that just ticked up 4 percent.
Waterbury has a comparable quarterly base rate, charging customers of its sewer system $46.20 a quarter for that service. However, its consumption-based rate — $2.89-per-100-cubic feet — wasn’t significantly higher than Barre’s was and is now lower.
According to the data compiled by city staff, the same theoretical 1,150-cubic-foot-a-quarter customer would be billed $79.24 for three months of sewer service in Waterbury and $83.31 in Barre.
The quarterly comparison between Barre and Rutland shows next to no difference in what customers would pay despite the fact the consumption-based component of Rutland’s sewer rate structure — $5.75-per-100-cubic feet — is significantly higher than Barre’s.
According to the staff analysis, Rutland’s base charge for sewer is only $17.55 a quarter – nearly $30 less than the comparable fee in Barre.
The rates from other communities used in the analysis are pulled from a November 2018 study and are dated. That is definitely true with respect to Montpelier.
According to the document provided to councilors Montpelier charges its sewer customers 9.20-per-$1,000 gallons of sewer usage and a quarterly ready-to-serve charge of $51. Those rates have since been increased to $9.50 and $54.
Either way, the just increased rates in Barre are a bargain by comparison. Based on comparable consumption — 1,150 cubic feet or 8,603 gallons — the quarterly sewer bill in Montpelier is more than $52 higher than than would be generated based on the just-increased rates in Barre.