WHITEFIELD — Water and sewer bills are going up.
The Board of Selectmen on Monday approved rate hikes that will increase a typical home’s combined water and sewer bill by nearly 50%.
The changes take effect July 1.
The biggest increase was to the sewer rate. Connection fees were tripled and the ‘per 1,000-gallon’ rate was nearly doubled, from $5.85 to $10, for the town’s 430 sewer system users.
The reason for the sharp increase in the sewer rate? The $8.49 million sewer treatment plant project, which is slated for completion this spring, and is expected to begin operations in September.
The town must repay two loans on the project, a $3.56 million USDA bond (first payment due April 21) and a $1.4 million Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan (first payment due May 1, 2022).
Meanwhile, water rates also went up. Connection fees increased $3 and the ‘per 1,000-gallon’ rate jumped 16%, from $6.55 to $7.65. Those changes affect the town’s 648 water customers.
The town continues to repay a $3.6 million rural development loan for various water system improvements including water main replacements, pump station improvements, and new town-wide water meters.
Overall, once the water and sewer rate hikes take effect, a household with a standard 5/8 inch meter and using 72,000 gallons annually would see their annual water and sewer bill go up to $634, from $1,292.80 to $1,916.80.
The impact will be significant for some.
The Mountain View Grant hotel has a four-inch meter and their sewer bill alone is expected to increase from $13,600 to $23,575 annually, according to Select Board member Shawn White.
In addition, White said, his household water and sewer bill will increase from approximately $500 to $1,700.
“This is hitting all of us,” he said, adding that concerned residents should curb their water consumption. “We are in control of how much water we use. I’m getting a better shower head that uses less water. There are avenues we can look at, to save how much we use.”
Whitefield resident Mark Saffian asked if the town would provide financial assistance for low-income and fixed-income households.
Select Board member Peter Corey said nothing specific was planned, noting that the town’s water rates were “certainly not the lowest and certainly not the highest” in the state.
Saffian suggested the town create a grading system to apply for abatement and Corey replied the town already offers public assistance, and residents in financial distress could apply for that.
When asked if the town should create a village district to manage and vote on water and sewer issues, White said the system had its “pluses” and “minuses,” and Corey added that a village district would create another layer of government bureaucracy.
In addition to the rate change, the town will switch from a semi-annual to a quarterly billing cycle.
That is being done as part of a water conservation program. Quarterly billing will increase the town’s ability to monitor for, and catch, leaks in the system.
The Whitefield sewer plant project was set in motion in 2015.
That’s when the town was notified by the EPA that it was in violation of its discharge permits into the John’s River. EPA issued an administrative order, which could have led to fines, and was given a timeline to correct the situation, Corey said.
The town worked with Horizons Engineering and the state Department of Environmental Services to plan for the replacement of the wastewater treatment plant.
In 2017, the town submitted a USDA Rural Development grant application and was approved for a $6.5 million project, of which $2.9 million was grant-funded. Months later town meeting approved the project.
Upon further review by the Department of Environmental Services, it was determined it would take an additional $1.6 million to build a suitable plant for the town. Town meeting voters granted permission for the added funds.
The town must now repay the USDA bond of $3.56 million over the next 27 years at an interest rate of 1.25% and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan of $1.4 million at a rate of 2% over the next 30 years (which includes $190,000 in loan forgiveness).
“That brings us to where we are today. We have known this day was coming. We knew we would have to raise the rates for the bond payments. The rates are basically figured at looking at debt service and operating costs and spreading it over the number of users, which are 430 sewer users, and calculating it out determines our debt requirements,” Corey said. “The treatment plant is nearly complete. The testing phase should begin in June, and we should go completely online in September at which time we will be able to operate the septage receiving station and generate income and offset some of these costs.”