ELLSWORTH — City councilors on Monday unanimously approved a 10 percent hike in water rates to take effect in January, in part to cover the costs of maintaining aging infrastructure and to keep pace with housing and commercial growth.
“You defer your maintenance and the costs stay the same,” said Councilor John Phillips.
“In the next fiscal year [the Water Department] is in the red because there’s not enough revenue to cover what the expenses are.”
“This is self-supporting,” he added, not taxpayer-funded. “This is users paying for the system.”
The rate increase will have to be approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission before it can take effect, but will result in roughly a $3 per month increase for the average household using 1,800 cubic feet (13,464 gallons). That’s $36.40 extra per year.
“We were trying to balance the short-term needs of your customers with the long-term needs of your department,” said Nick Henry, a certified public accountant who conducted a rate analysis for the department.
It’s been more than a decade since rates increased in Ellsworth, Henry said, while the state average is for a rate change every three to five years.
“We can hold off,” said Henry. “The Ellsworth Water Department will not be bankrupt … but there won’t be the needed investments in the department going forward. You don’t invest in your system and behind the scenes your system starts to crumble around you.”
Water infrastructure around the state is aging rapidly, said Henry, with a number of pipes in Ellsworth installed in the 1940s. Many municipalities are facing rate hikes of 30 and 40 percent, he said.
“We’re below the state average,” Henry said.
Ellsworth’s water rate for a resident using 1,200 cubic feet (8,976 gallons) per quarter is $74, said Henry, below the state average of $75-$80 and far below the average in Hancock County, which is $110 per quarter.
State Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) was the only resident who spoke during the public hearing.
Grohoski told the council that while she isn’t a customer, she sits on the state’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which often deals with similar subject matter.
“Many, many communities are struggling with this same issue. I think we’re very lucky in Ellsworth that the rate increase is as low as it is. I am hearing about communities that are experiencing a 30 percent increase, and that’s not even covering what their costs are.”
The committee has been looking for funding for maintenance projects, said Grohoski, but it’s hard to come by.
“There are communities that are so much worse off than Ellsworth,” Grohoski continued, “I don’t suspect that you could receive state funding anytime soon for those types of deferred maintenance projects.”
Grohoski added: “I’m sorry to say that we don’t have a lifeline, we tried to put a bond out, it was not approved … I think incrementally increasing that is less destructive to especially our low-income residents is probably the best way to go.”