Vergennes sewer rates up 10 percent

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on Tuesday raised the city’s base per-unit sewer rate by $10 per quarter, or $40 per year, and will calculate a similar increase for Vergennes’ metered commercial sewer ratepayers.
The increase means the quarterly rate for a homeowner — or the owners of business spaces or apartments, per unit — will increase from $96 to $106, or from $384 to $424 per year.
The increase is the second of about 10 percent in a little more than a year after about a decade of stable rates. During 2016 budget deliberations the council backed an increase from $87.50 to $96 per quarter, or $34 more per year.
City Manager Mel Hawley said that if the council did nothing he projected the sewer fund in June 2018 would be $8,000 in the red with a funding level of about $680,000.
With the increase, sewer fees should raise about $720,000 a year, allowing the city to afford raises and make some progress in replacing the clay tile sewer mains that are believed to be a major contributor to the city’s sewer overflow problem.
Hawley also told the council he projected that this increase would probably be adequate until 2022. That date is critical because payments on a major sewer bond end in November of that year.
Some council members hesitated earlier this fall to support an increase, but not on Tuesday.
“I’ve changed my mind. I think we have to move ahead,” said Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly.
In moving to support the increase Donnelly cited another major problem in the sewer overflow, the fibrous products, such as baby and sanitary wipes, that are flushed into the system and can clog the pumps at the Macdonough Drive station when heavy rains cause stormwater surges.
She said bills to go out this week or in the next quarter should contain an insert urging residents not to flush the wipes, which Hawley and sewer treatment plant operator Rich Chaput refer to as rags, at the risk of further rate increases.
“We need to educate people,” Donnelly said.
Hawley agreed education was a good idea, but said it alone would not solve the problem.
“I also think we’re going to have to do something to the Macdonough Drive pump station to catch the rags before they get to the pumps, and that means we need money,” he said.
Hawley said unfortunately a planning grant he had hoped to apply for this fall had a contingency in the fine print that could not be met — it required Agency of Natural Resources pre-approval for sewer-related applications, and the deadline came too quickly for an ANR OK to be obtained.
He is on the record as suggesting other sources of revenue be found to support paying for an engineering study, and at one point suggested the city’s Water Tower Fund as a place to look for infrastructure help.
“I want to continue to move at looking at making improvements at Macdonough Drive,” Hawley said.
The vote to raise the sewer rates was not unanimous. Alderman Renny Perry voted against it after suggesting a $20 a year raise, with the council prepared to act again when necessary.
“I’m not sure I want to a stick a $40 increase on the residents,” Perry said.
Alderman Jeff Fritz and others disagreed, saying they didn’t want to revisit the issue yet again.
“I would prefer we bite the bullet,” Fritz said.
On the other hand, Alderman Michael Koenig wasn’t sure $40 was enough, although he voted with the 6-1 majority. He said he was concerned “if we don’t do some more advance planning” there could be an $80 increase within two years.
Hawley said he was confident in his projection that $720,000 of revenue generation would be enough.
“I do feel the city council can maintain a budget of $718,000,” Hawley said.
He did qualify that opinion somewhat. In March the results will be known of a study of how many of the city’s estimated dozen miles of sewer lines are still made of deteriorating clay. And those results could start to give city officials a better idea of how much it will cost to fix the infiltration problem.
“The crystal ball will become clearer when we get the results of this study,” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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