Easthampton BPW delays vote on big water, sewer hikes

Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2020 10:59:06 AM

EASTHAMPTON — City officials have delayed until late this month a decision on whether to OK significant increases in water and sewer rates to help fund urgent infrastructure needs.

The Board of Public Works opted to put off a vote last week after concerns were raised at a public hearing attended by more than 100 residents. Board members indicated that they wanted more information before taking the matter up again at their March meeting.

“I would like to have some time to work with what we’ve heard,” said Thomas Malsbury, the board’s chairman.

At the meeting, resident George Brooks said that it feels like “Easthampton is trying to push the seniors out,” also noting the recent property tax increase to pay for construction of a new school.

The proposed water and sewer increases would go toward covering a planned $2.7 million in repairs and upgrades to the water, sewer and stormwater systems over the next three years. That work is part of a proposed five-year, $21.9 million repair and rehabilitation plan for these systems, which the DPW has said is urgently needed.

“The overall goal is to have a system that is dependable,” said William Hardy, chief operating officer of the civil engineering firm Tighe & Bond, which is consulting for the city.

The DPW is considering two options. One calls for creating a new stormwater fee separate from sewer and water rates. The other option would keep the rate structure as it currently is, with stormwater expenses paid for by money raised through sewer bills.

The plan to create a separate stormwater fee, which is not recommended by the DPW, would mean overall increases for a sample single-family home of 12%, or $74, in fiscal year 2021; 12%, or $85, in fiscal 2022 and 4%, or $33, in fiscal 2023.

For the sample multi-family/commercial property, however, the numbers represent increases of about 45%, or $656, in fiscal 2021; 32%, or $669, in fiscal 2022 and 3%, or $75, in fiscal 2023.

Under the plan proposed using the current rate structure, the sample single-family user and multi-family/commercial properties would both see their rates go up by about the same percentages — 13% in fiscal 2021, 13% in fiscal 2022 and 14% in fiscal 2023.

The difference in the two plans comes down to how the stormwater system is funded and how much of a burden goes onto multifamily/commercial properties.

DPW Director Joseph Pipczynski said the plan without the stormwater fee was being recommended because the City Council would have to authorize the creation of a separate enterprise fund, and he didn’t think the council had the appetite to start another enterprise fund.

“We need this money,” said Pipczynski. “We need to make these repairs.”

He did say, however, that such a fund could be created at a later date.

City Councilor Homar Gomez said that he wanted to see another plan.

“Give us another option,” he said.

Gomez also said that the council won’t “kick the can” down the road again.

A third plan was presented at the meeting by resident Paul St. Pierre, who said that the recommended plan is a “bad plan because it puts the largest burden on the poorest people.”

St. Pierre’s idea would establish a stormwater fee, while also raising base fees for water and sewer to a level equal to the plan without a stormwater fee. Unlike either of the other two plans, there would be no increase in the usage rate for either water or sewer.

St. Pierre characterized the fee as a tool that could be used to give relief to seniors, farmers and families.

“What this does is it shifts the largest portion of the burden to the wealthiest property owners in town,” he said.

Resident Don Michaud objected to the creation of a new stormwater fee. He said that under the report from Tighe & Bond, properties like Williston Northampton School would not be subjected to the fee because they are exempt from paying property taxes.

When asked about this point, Hardy said that the city should get a ruling from the state.

Other suggestions put forward were to institute a separate commercial rate and to explore a payment in lieu of taxes program for nonprofits.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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