Wiscasset selectmen approve 30 percent sewer rate hike

Hesseltine talks police department staffing
Wed, 05/22/2019 - 8:00am

After a public hearing Tuesday, Wiscasset selectmen voted to increase sewer rates by 30 percent, not the 56 percent hike that would have zeroed out the shortfall in the wastewater treatment budget.

For the 811 sewer ratepayers in Wiscasset, the pain won’t be over in a single year. Selectmen also voted to continue to increase rates over a three-year period until there is no shortfall in the plant’s budget. How the town would finance the shortfall – $125,000 in  the first year of the plan – would depend on the most economical means to obtain the funding. Options could include grant monies, but Director Richard Gaerth and Town Manager John O’Connell said they do not hold out much hope for grants, at least in the first year. Other possibilities would include taking the money from the town’s investment funds, either using the projected interest margin of 3.5 percent, or withdrawing a larger sum. Another option would be to bond for the money needed to repair the  plant, which serves town buildings, departments and schools, and 810 individual ratepayers.

The plant is supposed to be self-funding; however, little has been done to maintain the facility since its 1992 overhauled. In recent years, the plant has been scrutinized by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Water Quality Management. The aging facility has had to pay several fines, and Gaerth said the next fine could be six figures.

Some speakers said it was unfair for a small number of ratepayers to pay for such a large increase. O’Connell said there had been no rate increases in seven years.  Chair Judy Colby said she is not interested in pointing fingers at people who should have done things differently. “We need to look forward, and just get on with it,” she said.

Jim Crowley, who works for DEP and lives in Wiscasset, spoke as a resident. He said the plant had been “egregiously neglected.” “Long term, there has been a problem with funding this particular piece of infrastructure,” he said. “(The plant) is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. The DEP is not going to go away because it is the job of the DEP to protect the waters of the state.”

Two other public hearings were held Tuesday. One was to answer any questions about the warrant items for town meeting; the second was to answer questions about the sewer easement for Chewonki Campground. Neither hearing generated questions, except for Selectman Bob Blagden, who asked about the language in the plant article, which is no longer accurate. Because absentee ballots have already gone out, the language cannot be amended.

Selectmen honored Clara Dow Wentworth with the town report dedication, and made In Memoriam presentations to the families of Leroy “Roy” Farmer and David R. Nichols.

During public comment, Ann Dill spoke in favor of the Wiscasset Community Center, and was assured by Colby the town had no intention of closing it. Director Lisa Thompson later said she would have appreciated the opportunity to speak with the board about cuts to her overtime budget. She said the center had spent $650 in overtime costs since the beginning of the fiscal year. Then, Police Chief Larry Hesseltine said he uses overtime, had lost two part-time employees, and would be making a case over the coming fiscal year for two more full-time members. “Since January 1, we’ve had 90 arrests,” he said. He said there have been serious crimes, including a rape in the Wiscasset Elementary School parking lot, that occurred between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. “Now we have the Sheriff’s Office covering those hours, because I had two part timers who were willing to work those hours, and of course it didn’t last.” He said there is no accountability with part-timers, because they have to leave to do other jobs, which are their primary responsibilities.

The board approved Fix Marine Auto and Truck on Bath Road, approved new business licenses for Midcoast Craft at 75 Main St., and Maine Life Apparel and Lobstaholic Apparel, both on the Main Street Pier, and agreed to a farmers’ market without a fee, as is customary for farmers’ markets, in the Recreational Pier parking lot Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The Maine Department of Transportation downtown project will now include eight benches, four trash cans and three flower planters on each side of the street, O’Connell said.

Editor’s note: The original article misstated the amount of overtime Wiscasset Parks and Recreation has used.