BARRE — Water and sewer rates in the Granite City are now set to go up and up and up and up.
City councilors narrowly approved a plan to incrementally boost rates for both municipal utilities over the next four years following a protracted discussion that required Mayor Lucas Herring to cast the decisive vote Tuesday night.
Though it was at odds with his recommendation, City Manager Steve Mackenzie wasn’t complaining following a 4-2 decision that went further then he was comfortable requesting.
“The need is real,” Mackenzie said shortly after the meeting adjourned.
No one on the council disputed that, though Rich Morey and John LePage said they were uncomfortable committing to four annual rate increases on a single Tuesday night – particularly given one resident’s suggestion they explore an out-of-the-box idea for generating new revenue.
Both Morey and LePage said they favored Mackenzie’s plan – one that would have boosted rates this year and re-evaluated them next year with the expectation additional increases would be needed at that time.
“People are feeling squeezed,” LePage said defending his decision to vote against the multi-year proposal that essentially embraced the findings of a financial analysis of both enterprise funds performed by city staff.
Like LePage, Morey said he would have supported the increases recommended by Mackenzie despite being repeatedly lobbied to vote against them. However, he questioned the wisdom of setting rate increases – that absent some interim action by the council – will automatically go into effect this time next year, the year after that, and the year after that.
Morey said he was concerned the four-year plan could generate “sticker shock” among rate payers that could prove unnecessary if the rate structure is retooled based on a suggestion provided earlier in the evening by Berlin Street resident Mark Duquette.
Essentially, Duquette told councilors they could ease the burden on Barre homeowners by changing the way the city assesses the “base rates” for both water and sewer. Those combined rates currently total roughly $104 a quarter and a charged per connection – not per user.
Duquette argued the city could generate more than $700,000 in new revenue by levying that charge on rental on more than 2,300 rental units instead of just the 600 buildings that house them.
Councilors were intrigued by the idea and while Mackenzie questioned whether it was viable he said it could be studied in the next few months.
Morey argued limiting the proposed increases to one year would send a signal the council was serious about studying the rate structure before considering additional increases next year.
“I’m just concerned if we say ‘four years’ we’re going to sticker shock people (for no reason),” he said.
However, Councilor Teddy Waszazak argued the council owed it to residents to be as clear as it could about the financial needs – current and future – of the water and sewer funds.
“To me, it’s an honesty thing,” he said, noting nothing prevented the council from exploring the idea and possibly revisiting its decision next year.
Faced with rising operating costs and saddled with $3.4 million in new voter-approved debt service and a $921,000 obligation to the state that must be paid off in the next four years, Mackenzie told councilors a rate increase was required. The need, he said, is far more pronounced on the sewer side, which is already running in the red before absorbing the new expenses.
Presented with a plan they were told would cure that over four years and a recommendation they consider implementing it in phases councilors opted for the former. However, in the absence of Councilor Jeffrey Tuper-Giles, Herring had to cast the decisive vote. Herring joined Waszazak, Michael Boutin and John Steinman in the requisite four-vote majority. Morey and LePage both voted against the proposal solely because it contemplated increases beyond those that will be reflected in rates used to calculate bills that will be mailed in coming weeks.
Morey described the consumption-based component of the city’s sewer rate as “shockingly low” compared to other Vermont communities and didn’t dispute the need for the first of four 20 percent increases approved by the council.
Barring some subsequent council-approved adjustment that portion of the rate will more than double over the next four years, from $2.70- to $5.60-per-100 cubic feet of sewage used. That is still less than cities like Burlington and Rutland already charge.
Meanwhile, the sewer “base rate” – the fee you pay just for having the service – is slated to increase 4 percent a year. It will rise from $44.28 to $51.80 per quarter as part of the just-approved plan.
Absent an adjustment the water “base rate” will increase from $4.57- to $5.30-per-100-cubic feet consumed over the next four years. That reflects a 3 percent increase this year and annual increases of 4 percent in each of the three following years.