By Michael Howell
The mayor and Town Council of Stevensville held an informational meeting about the town’s water system project and the new water rates and metering system on Wednesday, August 22. The public response was close to overwhelming as over 70 people packed the town hall meeting room with some overflow into the foyer and the adjoining fire hall.
People came with questions and with complaints. Most of them were unhappy customers. Many felt that their latest water bills were not accurate and they questioned the accuracy of the new meters that were installed. Many had seen their water bills go from an average of $80 a month to $120 per month and were shocked. They can’t believe they use as much water as they are being billed for. Some expressed frustration that the number of watering days has been reduced with no watering allowed on Sunday. Several people presented individual bills and claimed they were in serious error.
The bottom line for many was that they simply could not afford the new rates.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack, through a continuous ply of questions, managed to present a power point program detailing the water system project, and the history of the determination of the new rate structure.
Mim Mack said that state law was driving and directing the improvements, including major changes and upgrades, in the town’s water system. It was upcoming changes in state drinking water standards that led the town’s engineer to recommend abandonment of the surface water system being used by the town up the Burnt Fork and a change to a system based totally on wells.
State law also requires that a municipality’s water system support itself by its own fees, which are kept in a separate Enterprise Fund not to be mixed with the general fund monies. Water systems are required to have a fee structure that can support their operation and maintenance. According to the mayor, however, Stevensville’s flat rate system was not meeting the system’s revenue needs and was not paying for itself.
Faced with the need to upgrade to meet new standards and saddled with a flat rate billing system that wasn’t meeting costs, a preliminary engineering report was issued with a five-year, four-phase implementation plan that included a revenue requirement analysis including a cost of service analysis and a rate design to meet those costs.
The entire project is estimated to cost a little over $4.2 million. But half that cost, about $2.127 million, is being met by grants from federal and state programs. The other half, about $2.173 million, was financed through a bond. The water fund pays out about $97,000 annually on debt service. It holds another $44,000 in short account funds for emergencies. Twenty-five percent of the water revenues is placed in a reserve fund to pay for future replacement costs.
The mayor also had data on cities and towns around the state that showed the town’s new rate structure was not out of line.
One member of the audience called all this a bunch of “government mumbo jumbo.” She said the reality was people trying to make it in a time when there are no jobs and they have no way to pay these new rates.
Another person said that people were being put in the position of having to decide if they pay their water bill or buy groceries.
“A person shouldn’t have to make that kind of choice,” she said.
A few misconceptions also found expression in the ensuing litany of remarks. Several people mentioned that they were under the impression that their water bill would decline since the base rate was being reduced, but that is not the case. The base rate of $29.12 also includes the first 3,000 gallons of water. But 3,000 gallons is not enough to fill the average household needs. Add lawn irrigation to the demand and you are quickly talking tens of thousands of gallons. For anything over 3,000, however, town residents pay $1.85 per gallon. The average household use, according to information provided by the mayor, is about 940 gallons per day. That comes to about 28,200 gallons per month. Those people who thought the reduction in the base rate would translate into a reduction in their overall bill were mistaken.
Another factor complicating things for at least half the water users in town is the fact that prior to the new project and the installation of new meters, half the water users did not have a meter at all and were paying a $40 flat rate for unlimited amounts of water. He said now that it is being measured and they are being charged, people simply can’t believe how much water they are really using. Or, they have a leak that needs attention.
Mayor Mim Mack said that the town has a list of names of people who believe their use is not being measured accurately and/or they are being overcharged and staff is addressing them one at a time. He said a small number of meters, so far, have actually been found to be faulty. The vast majority of cases, once investigated, turn out to be either a leak, which can use up water at a fast pace, or the case of people simply not being aware of how much water they really use. He insisted that the idea that the meters were generally defective was a misconception.
Another mistaken conception was that the town was spending money on a $500,000 sidewalk improvement project, when that money could have gone into the water project and reduced the rates. But state law forbids the use of general funds to operate and maintain the water system. Not only that, but the funds used for the sidewalk improvements were obtained by a grant using transportation dollars that cannot be used for any other purpose. The matching funds to get that grant were provided by the Main Street Association which solicited the funds from private businesses and individuals.
Councilor Bill Perrin, at the end of the meeting when most of the public had left, stated that the Council needed to consider the possibility that increased staffing hours or perhaps a contract firm might be needed to process the list of complaints at a faster pace. Right now, if the historical use at the house can be determined and it matches the current use, the town is not examining the meter. If the use is grossly out of historical perspective, the functioning of the meters is being tested.
At a regular council meeting the next evening on Thursday, August 23, the mayor read two letters from distraught water users. One was a letter from a ninety-one year old resident living on $356 per month in Social Security payments now getting a monthly water bill for $103. She said that she has fallen eight months behind in paying her bills.
“I do not have a penny now till September 1st. Would you like to trade places with me? Just try it,” she wrote.
The mayor noted that the town staff was in frequent communication with the woman and that the issue of people living on fixed incomes was a serious issue that the town was trying to address. It is complicated by the fact that state law requires treating all water users equally and would prohibit simply lowering the rate for certain individuals. However, the town is currently arranging the possibility of providing aid to anyone who already qualifies for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program offered by the state. Anyone who qualifies for that energy assistance would also be deemed acceptable to receive water bill assistance from the town. That assistance would come from a $5,000 fund established in the latest budget for such a use. There is an effort underway to solicit private donations to that fund as well.
The plan now is to review the many comments and suggestions received at the special meeting on water rates and fashion some plan for action to implement any acceptable remedies.