BPW Votes Again To Raise Water and Sewer Rates by 9%, Despite Vocal Homeowner Protests
Because the agenda wasn’t posted for the BPW’s April 25 meeting, when hefty water and sewer rate hikes were adopted, the board was ordered to take a “re-vote” last night. This time, more than two dozen residents – most of them from Ward 6 – showed up to cry foul.
By DAVID REID
NORTHAMPTON – Last night, for the second time in two weeks, the Board of Public Works (BPW) voted unanimously to raise both water and sewer rates of over 9 percent to start this July.
Wednesday night’s voting, which took place with almost no debate among the five BPW members present, was delayed for almost an hour while many of the 25 homeowners who came to protest voiced their objections to the higher rates and to the way those rates are decided.
Members of the volunteer board – who are empowered by the city charter to set annual water and sewer rates without approval by the City Council or mayor – had taken exactly the same action on April 25. But an error by the city clerk’s office in posting the meeting agenda resulted in City Solicitor Alan Seewald ordering the BPW to do it all over again.
The New Rates and the Bad Reaction by Councilors
Two weeks ago, the BPW approved raising water rates by 9.09 percent from $4.95 to $5.80 per 100 cubic feet; they also voted to hike sewer rates by 9.4 percent from $5.30 to $5.80 per 100 cubic feet. According to figures provided by Department of Public Works (DPW) staff, the result will be an increase of about $130 a year for an average family of four.
In Wednesday night’s voting, those rates were again adopted.
The rate hikes mirror ones adopted by the BPW one year ago as part of a five-year plan to build up needed cash reserves for the department, which operates water and sewer enterprise funds to fund operations. (To see Northampton Media’s coverage of those 2011 meetings, click here.)
The water rate would also help generate $4 million used to help pay for construction of a new, consolidated DPW headquarters at its current Locust Street site to replace deteriorated structures currently used. But Phase One of that project, most recently pegged at $16 million, has been indefinitely delayed by Mayor David Narkewicz, who says the city cannot now afford to move ahead with that badly needed project. (To see our story on that building project, click here.)
Like most BPW meetings, few if any members of the public showed up during last month’s BPW debates on the need to dramatically raise the rates: a deteriorating network of underground water and sewer pipes, many 100 years old or more, that need replacing; major upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant and to several dams throughout the city required by state and federal regulators; and interest payments of more than $1 million a year, much of it for the $28 million water filtration plant built a few years ago.
On May 3, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an above-the-fold story about the new round of water and sewer rates, appearing a full week after the vote had been taken. (To see reporter Chad Cain’s story on the rate hikes, click here.)
The news triggered harsh reactions from several members of the City Council at its meeting that night, most notably Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge. Several councilors said they were learning about the rate hikes for the first time from the newspaper; others suggested the council, and not the BPW, should have final approval on water and sewer rates.
The criticism continued on Tuesday this week, as the City Council began two nights of public hearings with city department heads while they consider the mayor’s $77 million general fund budget, not including water and sewer enterprise funds. The council must vote on the budget next month.
When his turn came to address the city councilors, DPW Director Edward “Ned” Huntley explained details of his $5.5 million sewer department budget and the $7.1 million water department budget and the projects and upgrades that are driving the need for higher rates.
While he fielded some routine questions from some councilors, LaBarge and some others objected to the rate hikes voted on by the BPW April 25.
“I have great concerns,” LaBarge told Huntley that night. She said many residents in her ward, especially the elderly homeowners on fixed incomes, “cannot afford (this) increase.” She said the BPW should have a fund, perhaps filled with state and federal grants, to pay for the required projects.
But Huntley said the rate hikes were an attempt by the BPW to build up reserve funds for such work, adding that water and sewer rates had been artificially low for several decades.
“It pains the Board of Public Works to go with these rates,” he said. But he said it is the fiscally responsible thing to do.
The Mistake in Posting the April 25 Meeting
It was during this budget hearing that Huntley disclosed that the BPW’s April 25 vote to approve higher water and sewer rates was invalid because the meeting was not properly posted.
Northampton Media has learned that the error occurred when the DPW staff sent an email to the city clerk’s office last month with two attachments for April 25: one contained the regular meeting agenda, which included a vote on water and sewer rates; the other was a public hearing notice on the closing of a portion of Turkey Hill Road.
Unfortunately, the road-closing notice was posted in City Hall and on the municipal website where the regular meeting agenda should have appeared. Public works officials blamed the city clerk’s office for the snafu, but Clerk Wendy Mazza told us the DPW staff was partly responsible for not checking the city website posting.
Some city councilors, including At-large Councilor Jesse Adams – who for the last two years has chaired or co-chaired a joint BPW-City Council conference committee – said they were unaware until the Gazette article about the water and sewer rate hikes, and were not told that the BPW’s April 25 meeting was illegally held.
Whether LaBarge, Adams and others should have known the BPW sets rates every year at this time remains an unanswered question; last year, similar rate hikes were adopted and a five-year plan to build cash reserves was adopted by the BPW. (To see our 2011 story on that policy debate, click here.)
Minutes from the Feb. 13 meeting of the BPW-City Council conference committee show that, while other major financial and infrastructure issues facing the DPW were discussed, there was no mention of the upcoming rate proposals that had been in the works for a year. (To see those minutes, click here.)
The minutes also reflect that BPW Member M.J. Adams was elected the committee chairman, with Councilor Adams serving as vice-chairman. Other committee members include BPW Chairman Terry Culhane and member Michael Parsons, as well as Councilors Paul Spector and Gene Tacy.
One thing to expect soon as the result of this latest kerfuffle: some city councilors, including Ward 3’s Owen Freeman-Daniels, will likely propose a change in the process that leaves the City Council out of the loop when it comes to approving water and sewer rates.
Last Night’s Meeting on the Water-Sewer Rates
In the small conference room at the DPW headquarters on Locust Street, more than 25 homeowners – most of them from Ward 6 – showed up at last night’s BPW meeting. Of the dozen or so speakers, all objected to the size of the rate hikes and most criticized an approval process that fails to notify rate-payers of upcoming votes and the issues involved.
The board agreed to take the water and sewer rate votes out of order and, as they always do, to allow public comment.
Several people said during or after the meeting that they showed up because Councilor LaBarge – already committed to a Wednesday night City Council budget hearings with police, fire and other department heads – wasn’t able to attend the BPW re-vote on water-sewer rates. According to one woman, she got a phone call from someone LaBarge called, and in turn called two other people who would repeat the phone tree calls.
Florence Road resident Giles Kellogg said the 9-percent rate hikes was too much for people on fixed incomes, especially with the price of gasoline, food and property taxes rising, too. “It’s going to push people out of town,” he said.
Former Chamber of Commerce director Paul Walker told BPW members last night that votes to raise rates shouldn’t be made by appointed officials, and should instead be the responsibility of the City Councilors.
Former at-large City Council candidate Michael Janik said people might support the rate hikes if they knew the pressing infrastructure needs, but said there was a lack of information.
Another speaker called water “a necessity of life” that captive residents can’t do without, and asked the board “to reconsider this.”
A 68-year-old construction worker said he’ll pay the bill, despite the burden, but said young, first-time home-owners “trying to come up in the world” are being hit with increased costs from all sides and might lose their homes without some relief.
“It’s just one thing after another after another,” he said.
“How do you expect people to pay for this?” asked one man, who said Northampton was built by blue-collar workers like himself who can’t afford steep rate hikes. “You can’t keep bleeding us.”
For the most part, board members refrained from dialogue with the protestors who showed up.
But acting BPW chairman Rosemary Schmidt (Culhane is out of the country) remarked that BPW meetings and agendas are routinely posted on-line and at City Hall and at DPW headquarters, and that there’s no effort to exclude the public.
Huntley explained that some big items are on the horizon, including $6 million in dam repairs for the city’s reservoirs and $1 million for a larger capacity sewer line at the industrial park. And the city is still paying off the cost of its water filtration plant in Williamsburg.
And new federal standards limiting the amount of nitrogen in wastewater discharge are likely to hit the city’s aging treatment plant hard, he added, saying the town of Newmarket, N.H. had to pony up $15 million to bring its own plant into compliance.
It’s not acceptable to run the water and sewer enterprise funds in the red, drawing from dwindling cash reserves, said Huntley.
M.J. Adams remarked that public works officials need to do more community outreach to explain long-range issues facing the DPW, educating the public about the need for rate hikes and cash reserves.
Parsons, an engineer, said he and fellow board members take their job and their responsibilities seriously.
“We don’t take this lightly at all,” he told the crowd. “But we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
(To see a list of the DPW’s responsibilities, click here.)
The Quick Votes and the Absent Chairman’s Comments
When it came time to vote on the rate increases, there was no debate among the board members, since they had performed their internal discussions last month. It took less than a minute to vote on both measures. Voting yes were Parsons, Adams, David Shearer and Gary Hartwell. Schmidt, acting as chair, did not vote, as is the board’s custom. There were no dissenters.
Asked by Northampton Media for comment over the rate controversy, Culhane responded by email from Italy.
“On the water side, even with this rate increase, we will still lose money this year. That is the surplus will be smaller next year than it is right now,” Culhane wrote in his email.
“On the sewer side, this rate increase will result in approximately a $350,000 surplus. This is a very modest goal given the expenses we can see coming. Many of the city’s sewer pipes are over 100 years old, the waste water treatment plant will have to renew its permit next year, (and we anticipate considerable expense to meet the coming regulations on permissible nitrogen discharge). And the plant itself, at 40 years old, has reached double its design life.
“All of these issues will require millions of dollars. Our projected surplus is just a modest first step towards meeting our obligations to the city and to the environment.”
© 2012 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org