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Sewer bill too low? Southington is blaming estimates, aging plant

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SOUTHINGTON — Town officials blame a broken billing structure and an aging wastewater treatment plant for the repeated sewer rate increases that failed to match revenues with expenses every year since 2006.

The plant’s operating costs exceeded its revenues by $1.6 million last fiscal year, the largest loss since 2008. Elected officials said they believed previous increases would balance the sewer plant budget.

Town Council Republicans recently approved new sewer rates and a new billing structure. Residents will be charged a flat fee of $180 in addition to $3 per hundred cubic feet of water used. Bills will be based on meter readings, a system used by most surrounding towns. Previously, Southington used estimates of fourth-quarter water usage for billing.

Republicans say changes make the system more fair since bills will more accurately reflect water usage. The change also allows billing to be automated and new revenue is anticipated to meet the plant’s expenses.

Democrats opposed the new fees, saying they would put a heavy burden on those least able to afford it. Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to table the sewer rate increase vote on Feb. 24.

The average rate-payer’s bill will rise by about $100 due to the changes. A minority of rate-payers will have lower bills.

Chester Knell, a Muir Terrace resident, said his bills have gone from $225 in 2006 to more than $700 for 2012. He questioned rising sewer plant expenses at a public hearing on Feb. 24.

“What are the increased costs that are going to raise it that high?” he said.

Only about a dozen residents attended the meeting. Knell said a larger turnout might have prevented the council from raising the sewer fees. He expects a backlash when new bills arrive in July.

“I think a lot of people are going to be shocked,” he said.

While projects under consideration would reduce the costs of operating the plant, Town Manager Garry Brumback said revenue needed to rise first.

“The first thing we’ve had to do is stop the bleeding,” he said, referring to yearly operating losses.

Under the former billing system, plant costs were anticipated to exceed revenue by more than $1 million next year, Brumback said.

One of the cost-reduction projects is to purchase trucks that can haul waste from the plant to a disposal site in Hartford. The town pays $400,000 a year for that service, and for about that much it can buy its own trucks.

Waste sludge has to be taken elsewhere since last year when the plant’s digester broke. It’s cheaper to haul the sludge than fix the digester, according to Brumback.

Processing the sludge costs $400,000 a year, but that amount can be reduced by removing water from the sludge. That project would cost $5 million.

Capital projects such as plant upgrades or truck purchases are funded by the town rather than through sewer fees.

The plant employs two foremen, one lab chemist and seven operators in addition to Superintendent John DeGioia.

While plants are normally overhauled every 20 years, Southington’s facility hasn’t had major work since 1980. Some of the expenses are due to maintenance on an old plant, according to DeGioia. The town is working on plans for a revamped plant, but a date hasn’t yet been set for construction.

An additional cost in the last fiscal year’s budget was the state mandate to remove a portion of the phosphorous in the water. Chemicals needed for that task cost $16,000 per month, DeGioia said.

Roger Dann, Wallingford Water and Sewer Division general manager, said town residents are billed a flat rate in addition to a rate per hundred cubic feet of water. Rate-payers are only billed on 75 percent of the water they used, Dann said, since not all the water used ends up at the wastewater treatment plant.

Wallingford sewer revenues have stayed ahead of sewer plant expenses for the past three years, Dann said.

Despite double-digit rate increases from 2008 to 2011, nearly ten years passed previously with no sewer bill increases in Southington. Finance Board Chairman John Leary said that caused revenues to lag behind expenses at the plant.

The board doesn’t have authority over the plant’s operations, Leary said. It does make recommendations on capital improvements and will do so on the upcoming plant overhaul.

Michael Riccio, a Republican and Town Council chairman, has served on previous councils and supported a sewer rate increase in 2003. At the time, he expected those increases to fix the plant’s financial problems.

Riccio credited Brumback with deciding to totally revamp the sewer billing system. Previous increases hadn’t fixed the problem that some people weren’t paying for their share of sewer use.

“It was really the revenue side that was broken,” Riccio said. “A lot of times getting a new set of eyes, Garry coming in, you find something out.”

Before this month, bills were based on water usage in the fourth quarter. Those who winter out of town use no water in those months and drove down meter reading averages. The problem was that some people were getting free sewer service, Riccio said, not paying for all the water that they actually used.

Cheryl Lounsbury, a Republican councilor and chairwoman of the sewer committee, said raising rates are a difficult political task. On becoming sewer committee chairwoman, Brumback presented her with the problems at the plant but also warned her raising fees wouldn’t be easy.

“Raising rates, a sewer rate or any other rates, are not popular,” Lounsbury said.

The council has been aware of the problem, she said, but didn’t have the necessary support.

“It’s going to cost political capital,” Lounsbury said.

John Barry, a Democratic councilor, questioned why action needed to be taken so quickly. He said the new system would put a burden on senior citizens who use little water but would be hit with the flat fee.

“This was a very rushed process,” he said. “I don’t think it was vetted enough to get a true and accurate picture of who is impacted the most.”

Barry was council chairman in 2008 and supported the 20 percent increase in sewer rates. He also formed the sewer committee to study rates.

“I’m no arguing that rates have to go up,” he said.

Lounsbury said there was no reason to wait.

“No one came up with a better solution,” she said. “It was just, ‘Wait.’ But why should you wait?” (203)317-2230 Twitter: @JBuchananRJ

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