Time to stop kicking the can down the road and start having the sewer department’s revenues meet costs, town officials said May 3.
They used the can-kicking analogy multiple times, including on the prospect of raising rates. A report Maine Rural Water Association did for the town recommends a hike of about 46%, then annual ones for cost of living and to start funding a depreciation account to replace assets. “Funding (it) at this time would most likely be too much of a hardship on the ratepayers,” MRWA financial analyst Cathy Robinson wrote the department’s superintendent, Rob Lalli, in a March 28 letter.
Lalli told selectmen Town Manager Dennis Simmons agreed to the analysis. Lalli wanted it because, since Wiscasset hired him as superintendent in March 2020, and for a couple years before that, the department’s revenues have not matched its budget, he said. Lalli said, as an “enterprise account,” the department’s operating costs are to be paid with sewer bills.The department is not in the red this year because it has not yet filled a job a consent decree called for, he said. That would bring the department to four employees, he said.
Besides maintenance needs and rising chlorination costs, Lalli further said it appears the department will need millions of dollars in upgrades, including $7 million to upgrade to its pump stations. One that needs upgrading, on Gardiner Road, will serve the new assisted living facility, he noted.
For a small town, Wiscasset has “a ton” of pump stations, 18, due to its hills, Lalli said. “Flatter towns have much more of an advantage.”
As for multi-million dollar projects, Simmons said other funding “certainly ... could be had” to help with those. “I know it sounds dire ... I don’t want everybody getting all upset that in the next five years we’re going to have to cough up $10 million ... because I think there’s other ways that we can do that.”
Robinson wrote, “I believe that it is important for the town to address the need for a full rate increase so that the (department) can begin to operate within its financial means.” A review of rates, recent years’ financials, debt service, billing and consumption reports and the department budget found “the department has not had adequate revenues to cover ... operating, maintenance and debt service costs over the last three or more years.”
Lalli said May 6, the current quarterly rate is $93.60 for zero to 900 cubic feet. For the next 2,700 cubic feet, the quarterly rate is $10.40 per 100 cubic feet; and over 2,700 cubic feet, $9.10 per 100 cubic feet; those on a monthly rate pay $31.20 for zero to 300 cubic feet and, for 300 feet-plus, $10.40 per 100 cubic feet.
Requesting the 46% hike, Lalli told the board May 3: I know that that’s a huge bite. But if I had my druthers, I would ask ... for a 50% increase, possibly 55.”
“Sewer infrastructure is vital to this town,” he said at another point. “And you can’t have it decaying the way that it is ... I want to head stuff off before it (is) catastrophically failing and we have to suddenly decide we’re going to spend a gazillion dollars instantly.”
A 2019 rate hike has not been enough to cover costs, Robinson wrote. According to Wiscasset Newspaper files, that hike, the first in seven years, was 30%. To meet a shortfall, the hike would have had to be 56%, the paper reported.
Robinson has also been reviewing the impact fees charged for wastewater. So far, they look similar to other towns’, she wrote. She added she would contact the town when that analysis is finished.
The town’s sewer use ordinance calls for selectmen to hold a hearing before changing any fee, Simmons told the board in his report ahead of the May 3 meeting. The board went with Simmons’ recommended hearing date of June 7, as part of that night’s 6 p.m. board meeting. Robinson will be there to answer questions, Simmons said. And he said the issue may take a few meetings to decide.
Also May 3, the board set the hearing on the town meeting warrant for 6 p.m. May 17 at Wiscasset Community Center; OK’d the warrant for the 6 p.m. May 16 special town meeting at Wiscasset Middle High School, on the school budget; passed Maine Art Gallery’s 20-year lease of the former Wiscasset Academy on Warren Street; authorized Simmons to execute the contract for Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s $27,000 waterfront pump-out grant; reappointed Anthony J. Gatti Jr. to the planning board; and authorized Simmons and Public Works Director Ted Snowdon to review the bids for a fence for Ancient Cemetery and award the contract to the lowest qualified bidder. C.A. Newcomb & Sons of Carmel offered an ornamental fence for $83,114; Main Line Fence of Cumberland, either a steel fence for $82,300 or an aluminum one for $53,500.
The board dedicated the meeting to, and held a moment of silence for, Larry Gordon, who died last month. Chair Sarah Whitfield noted “the incredible service that he has given to this town.” According to Wiscasset Newspaper files, Gordon chaired the selectboard for 21 years, helped found Wiscasset Ambulance Service and was a 60-year member of the fire department.