Town weighs utility rate increase

Members of the Washington Town Council, meeting Monday night (Aug. 24) in a joint work session with planning commission members, appeared to agree that town water rates need to go up.

How much the rates should rise — and how fast — was the subject of an hour-long discussion, which ended with a request that town clerk Laura Dodd, vice mayor Gary Schwartz and treasurer Jerry Goebel come up with options by Sept. 14, the council’s next monthly session.

Mayor John Sullivan noted that the town’s water works now brings in about $60,000 in revenue annually — most of it through user fees — but costs the town about $100,000 ($103,900 during the last fiscal year).

“It doesn’t make sense to continue operating the system at a loss,” Sullivan said. The rates have not changed since 2007, he noted, remaining at $13.80 a month for up to 3,000 gallons (plus about $5 per additional 1,000 gallons above 3,000). “We deliberately didn’t want to raise the rates because of the fees we knew would be associated with the new wastewater treatment plant.”

The wastewater system, in operation since 2010, also operates at a loss, and rate increases for that system are also being considered, but the council and commission members focused primarily on water rates at the meeting — which was attended by just two town residents.

Sullivan proposed that the town raise the rate to about $25 or so a month, which would bring the system to a break-even point within a year. Others on the council, and planning commission member Judy DeSarno, suggested the increase to the break-even point be spread over a two- or three-year period.

“From a business perspective, I think it would be onerous to essentially double the rates in one year,” said council member Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of the Inn at Little Washington, by far the town’s biggest payer of water and sewer fees as well as the meals and lodging taxes that constitute the town’s largest source of revenue. “Businesses operate on budgets, and no one is ever prepared for a fixed expense to double the amount budgeted.”

“I think we definitely have to increase the rates,” said council member Mary Ann Kuhn, who also operates a B&B in town. “But I think we should do it slower.”

Sullivan and Goebels said they’d support raising the rates over a two-year period.

“I’d be happy to increase the rates to $25 or thereabouts over two years,” said Sullivan, “but I don’t think we should draw it out to three years.”

Dodd told the council that several large waterworks-related maintenance projects are coming within the next year, including painting the town reservoir off Piedmont Avenue, and installing a new well.

Those expenses — like the annual shortfall — will be paid out of the town’s general fund, which has been steadily dwindling, as hookup fees to the wastewater plant have declined (as expected) over the past several years, and the town has not disposed of its Avon Hall property to defray the maintenance costs and debt repayment for the sewer system, as was originally proposed in 2008.