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Middlebury residents get jolt from new water bills

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Town Treasurer Jackie Sullivan’s phone has been ringing off the hook these days — and it hasn’t been the result of residents weighing in on their property tax bills.
No, the veritable tidal wave of phone calls is coming from municipal water system customers who have noted a substantial spike in their bills. There are a few reasons for the increase, but here’s the leading culprit: The first increase in water and sewer rates the town has enacted in around seven years.
A portion of the increase raises $256,650 to pay for new water meter reading equipment that is being installed at roughly 1,750 connections throughout town, noted Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner. As reported in the Independent on Jan. 19, the new equipment involves a “cellular endpoint” device that fits on top of each water meter. It interacts with a high-resolution encoder on top of the meter that allows for water use information to be transmitted wirelessly to town workers at a central location. It will also eventually allow customers to better monitor their own water use, through an app.
Municipal water users currently pay a base rate of $30 per quarter, for up to 3,000 gallons. Those patched into the municipal sewer system pay a base rate of $36 per quarter. The selectboard in May agreed to fund the water meter upgrades through an increase of $3.56 in the base water rate and a hike of $3.60 in the sewer base rate. This put the total, quarterly base rates for water and sewer service at $33.56 and $39.60, respectively.
Then, in July, the board approved some additional water rate increases to generate an additional $32,471 in revenues for the current fiscal year — 2017 — water department operating budget. Specifically, the board OK’d a $1.96 bump in the base water rate (bringing it up to a total of $35.52), as well as a 6-cent hike in the water “usage rate.” With the 6-cent increase, customers will now pay $3.04 for every 1,000 gallons of water they use beyond 3,000-gallon base rate during any given quarter.
The water rate hikes translate into an increase in an average family bill of $9.59 per quarter. Expressed another way, the quarterly water bill for a home using the average of 10,800 gallons will increase from $149.92, to $159.51, according to town officials. The increase took effect during the fourth quarter of 2016.
The “sticker shock” was more acute for some customers who failed to promptly return post cards to the town bearing their meter readings at the time their new water meter equipment was installed. The town was forced to forecast water use for the balance of the quarter for these users. So an off-target estimate — coupled with the aforementioned rate increases — have produced a shock for folks who haven’t bee playing close attention to the latest water news, officials said.
Werner noted the town will need solid water revenues in the come years to help pay for some major capital projects.
“We need to reinvest in the water system,” he said.
He cited three specific water system projects that will need to be initiated during the next three or four years:
•  Replacement of a section of water main along Route 7 South, for an estimated cost of $1 million.
•  Replacement of aging water line in the town’s industrial park off Exchange Street, at a cost of around $1 million.
•  Upgrades to water main within the Gorham Lane neighborhood, estimated at around $600,000.
Middlebury officials will apply for state and federal planning grants and loans to map out these and other projects. Water fund proceeds will help a bit. But ultimately, the majority of the construction expenses will have to be bonded, according to Werner and Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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