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Northampton water, sewer rates to inch up

— It looks like property owners who have watched water and sewer rates climb significantly over the last decade will get some reprieve next fiscal year.

The relief might be temporary, though, given a number of projects on the horizon that may force the Board of Public Works to make tough decisions about rates in the coming years.

“We can see big things coming,” Chairman Terry Culhane told the City Council Thursday night.

In the short-term, however, the BPW is poised at its meeting Wednesday to increase water rates by 1.3 percent and sewer rates by 2.9 percent for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1.

The combined increase would add a little more than $15 a year to the bills of an average two-person household in the city and $30 annually for a family of four.

That’s a far cry from the 9 percent annual increases in both rates over the last several years, aside from fiscal 2006 when the board froze sewer rates. By comparison, residents saw their bills climb by an average of about $130 this fiscal year.

With reserves in both the water and sewer enterprise funds at more than $3 million each, Culhane said the board opted for small increases this year as it waits for a pair of comprehensive studies analyzing the city’s water and sewer systems.

Once completed, the board will use the studies to prioritize projects, determine how much they will cost, and set rates accordingly. Culhane said this will be done not only for water and sewer systems, but also for upgrades to the city’s wastewater and flood control systems.

“We will have to begin looking across the whole spectrum, stormwater, water and wastewater, and staggering them ... so that we don’t have two major projects hitting simultaneously,” Culhane said.

Among the projects are millions in work to upgrade the city’s dams, a new storage tank in the Ryan Road area and replacement of a water line that feeds into the city. Other expensive fixes are needed at the 50-year-old wastewater treatment plant, as well as upgrades associated with a new permit to discharge water into the Connecticut River.

The BPW will likely raise rates to pay for the projects, just as it did in recent years to fund several other large projects that are scheduled to occur in the next two fiscal years.

Those include $1 million to remove the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam and $1.4 million to install a new sewer intercepter from the lower part of the Northampton Industrial Park to the Bradford Street pump station.

The BPW intends to use some of the funds in its reserve accounts to pay cash for the projects, rather than bond them and accrue interest over the life of the loan. In the case of the dam removal project, the savings on interest would be $240,000, he said.

Even with the increases in water and sewer rates in the last several years, the average bill per household is well below that of other communities.

“Our rate is below the average for the state, and yet I would submit that our water infrastructure is first class,” Culhane said.

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