Bethel sewer users protest billing change
Bethel is getting complaints by letter, phone and in person from sewer users unhappy with the town’s stepped-up effort to bill buildings on the sewer line according to individual dwelling unit.
The sewer budget has been operating at a deficit, prompting town officials to look for more funding.
The town ordinance provides for a separate charge for each dwelling unit in a house or living complex, but some older buildings with multiple apartments, for example, are still charged as a single unit. Newer buildings and condos are already charged under the individual dwelling-unit format, according to town officials, and bringing the others into the format will be more equitable.
The town also does not distinguish between residential and commercial use in defining a unit, Town Manager Jim Doar said.
Bethel recently found what it believes to be about 100 units within the older buildings, which could translate roughly to another $55,000 per year.
The town currently charges $121.35 per quarter for usage of 0 to 1,500 cubic feet of water. If more is used the charge is $8.09 per 100 cubic feet.
Letters went out to users two weeks ago outlining the billing change, which the town planned to institute in April.
Doar said since then he has received phone calls, a letter and face-to-face criticism.
Selectmen got their own face-to-face feedback at their meeting Monday. Rental property owners Bob Laux and Jette Black attended to voice their opposition.
The plan, said Laux, “could drive a lot of us small guys right out of business.”
He said due to the poor economy rental property owners have already suffered a 50 percent decline in what they can get for their units.
Sewer rates, he said, should be based on usage. He said his building does not use the minimum 1,500 cubic feet of water.
“I have no problem paying for use. But to charge based simply on the fact I have units is not right,” he said.
Black agreed, noting that other places charge by usage. He said his rates would triple under the new structure.
Selectman Peter Southam replied, “Just having the connection is what matters most. You can’t rent without it. We’re not going to charge more than it costs to run the sewer treatment plant. But that’s what we have to charge. Whether you use it or not it costs us money.”
He said his own rates at a building he owns will double.
Black said the town should instead raise the minimum rate to $150 a quarter. He also said he should get credit for the times his building is under the minimum usage to apply to periods when it exceeds it.
Doar said the town will look at possibly changing the 1,500 minimum figure after all current users are brought online with a consistent billing plan.
Laux suggested a public forum on the issue, saying he had talked with other people who were “very angry” with the plan.
Doar said the town will likely considering pushing the initial billing changover for the older buildings to FY’15 (July).
Robert Moorehead, owner of Sudbury Village elderly housing, wrote Doar to outline the “financially painful impacts arising out of the combination of anticipated increased sewage costs at Sudbury and U.S government convulsions that make managing such an increase questionable at best.”
Among his points:
The change would triple the amount Sudbury now pays from approximately $4,000 to $11,650;
The process of municipal rate setting is usually accompanied by a hearing and appeals process;
He has never been notified of increase in Bethel public utilities;
The increase would translate into a $27 per month increase in the rent structure;
Because of federal sequestration, rental subsidies for USDA-RD housing programs are being rationed, and in some cases suspended. They amount to about 3/5 of operating revenues each month;
If the debt ceiling is not raised the entire government rental subsidy system would be “out of order,” Moorehead said. “Nobody will know when future subsidies will be forthcoming.”
He asked for a reprieve of at least one budget year before a rate increase.
For more on the issue, see Moorehead’s Letter to the Editor, Page 2.