Sewer rates charged to customers don't cover the costs of operating Ellsworth's new wastewater treatment plant . FILE PHOTO

Council wants to hear from public on proposed sewer rate increase

ELLSWORTH — Faced with a costly new wastewater treatment plant and less new development than previously anticipated, the city is considering raising rates — perhaps dramatically — for sewer users to help make ends meet.

City councilors, several of whom are sewer system customers, made it clear Jan. 11 that they do not want to take action on the issue until they hear from constituents and have further discussions with city leaders.

Deputy City Manager and Finance Director Tammy Mote, in a memo to the council, explained that although the sewer department is “intended to be a self-supporting system,” it has not functioned as such over the past decade.

She said that was previously due to the fact that the outdated treatment plant on Water Street “was in constant need of repair.” A new treatment plant has since been built, but although the city secured multiple grants to help cover the cost it still needed “a number of financing packages” to meet the $21-million price tag.

Projected development, such as new stores, businesses and housing, was expected to offset some of that cost but “did not occur at the growth rate that was expected,” Mote noted.

The different shortages have been met, to date, with money from the city’s general fund. Mote said the city, however, “no longer has the cash flow capacity” to continue covering those costs. She said the city must instead look at “new sewer rates and charges … at a level necessary to cover operations, maintenance, improvements, debt service and any future upgrades.”

Ellsworth’s present sewer user rate is $5.61 per 100 cubic feet. Mote said to achieve financial self-sustainability, an estimated rate increase of $2.42 — or 43 percent — is needed. That would push the rate to $8.03 per 100 cubic feet, a rate Mote said is in line with other service center communities around the state.

Mote said the city continues to look at other sources of revenue, such as accepting more “septage from private haulers and other municipalities,” to offset future costs and hopes that future development will help, too. That, however, “does not relieve the immediate pressures the city is experiencing.”

City Manager David Cole said the expectation Jan. 11 was not for councilors to take action on the proposal, but instead to consider it as a starting point to the discussion. Councilor Gary Fortier made it clear he was not comfortable taking any action on the matter until members of the public had a chance to hear about it.

“I think we need to throw this out into the open and let the public talk about it for a month,” he said. He said he was worried what such a rate increase, if made all at once, would do to the “ability of people to live in their homes.”

Councilor Steve Beathem said he would prefer to see any rate increase made in a series of steps rather than all at once, so that it would be less of a shock to residents and their wallets.

Sewer rates have not increased in Ellsworth in five years, officials said. Council Chairman Bob Crosthwaite said the city should have perhaps considered doing a stepped increase earlier, so as to avoid the potential of a large, single increase, but said “that’s hindsight now.”

Councilors closed discussion on the subject of the sewer rate increase Jan. 11 by tabling it for a future meeting.

Bucksport recently experienced a dramatic increase in its sewer rates, which nearly doubled last year. Part of the reason for that hike, town officials said, was the closure of the paper mill — which had a large sewer bill — while the other part was the construction of a new treatment plant.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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