Thursday, December 4, 2008

Council to set sewer rates

from The Republican

Thursday, December 04, 2008

HOLYOKE - For the first time in more than 50 years, the City Council will be able to adjust sewer rates instead of solely accepting or rejecting recommendations.

The council adopted the new ordinance in a 13-1 vote on Tuesday, shortly after deciding to accept a Board of Public Works recommendation to raise sewer rates by 15 percent to $5.40 per 1,000 gallons used.

Raising the rates has continually been controversial, even though the wastewater enterprise fund has a $250,000 deficit.

Most members agreed on Tuesday that some rate increase was needed, but argued against the 15-percent recommendation. It passed in a 8-6 vote.

Councilor Kevin A. Jourdain said he could accept a 3- or 4-percent cost-of-living raise, but found 15 percent too high.

"If we don't have the power to dispute the rate, what is the point of approving it?" asked Councilor Rebecca Lisi.

The procedure for setting sewer rates was developed in 1961. It called for the three-member Board of Public Works to recommend changes, and then for the City Council to approve or reject them.

At the time, wastewater was not treated, and the rate was 89 cents for 1,000 gallons of water used. It was rarely boosted, and in the 1980s, it was still $1.95 for 1,000 gallons and the department still had a $3 million reserve, said Jourdain.

But about seven years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated that the wastewater treatment system be upgraded to prevent frequent overflows of untreated sewage into the Connecticut River.

The multi-million-dollar project has required the city to raise rates, and the Board of Public Works said it expects to have to continue recommending 15-percent increases every few years, said Jourdain.

"This way," he said, "we will have more control over the department and it will lead to more accountability and more transparency."

He argued that it is fairer to have 15 elected politicians set sewer rates than the three people appointees to the board.

Before rates are set, Jourdain said, public hearings will be called so that residents and the Board of Public Works can express opinions.

Public Works Superintendent William D. Fuqua said that he and the board will work with the council to make sure the wastewater treatment budget is funded adequately.

"It is a different procedure," he said. "We will have to work with them and provide the council any information to set the rates in the future."

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