Mayor takes heat from business owners over water, sewer rate proposal

Mayor defends new structure from business critics

  • Mayor David Narkewicz heard concerns from several business owners about the proposed water and sewer rates Wednesday evening. — Stephanie McFeeters

  • In a meeting on water and sewer rates, Mayor David Narkewicz pointed out that 5 percent of the city’s customer base consumes 53 percent of its water.  — Stephanie McFeeters

Published: 4/14/2016 12:14:58 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Mayor David Narkewicz sparred with business owners over his proposed water and sewer rates Wednesday night, defending the new structure against criticism that it unduly burdens commercial users, as well as pushing back against broader condemnation that his administration has let Northampton’s downtown economy fall by the wayside.

In a meeting on the second floor of City Hall that lasted 2 1/2 hours, his sixth public presentation on the issue this year, Narkewicz walked a full room of about 50 people through the new rate plan, then opened the floor to questions. Several business owners took issue with the substantial increases in fixed fees and fire protection charges, as well as the split between small and large users, saying they were happy to pay for necessary infrastructure improvements but would rather stick with a flat rate.

At several points the meeting devolved into a shouting match — largely between the mayor and businessman Eric Suher, who owns the Iron Horse Entertainment Group and numerous Northampton properties, including the former Spoleto space on Main Street that has been vacant since 2012.

“We’re here as an afterthought,” Suher said, suggesting that the mayor considered only residents, and thus city voters, in determining the new rates.

The argument burgeoned beyond water and sewer rates to the city’s role in supporting a downtown economy several business owners said is struggling. In one heated exchange, Narkewicz drew attention to Suher’s vacant properties, as well as the missing “A” in the Calvin Theatre’s marquee. Suher responded by pledging he’d replace the vowel soon, if for no other reason than to prevent the mayor from using it as ammunition in future meetings — a brief comic respite for those gathered.

New structure

Under the current flat rate all users are charged $5.58 per 100 cubic feet for water, small fixed quarterly fees, and $6.08 per 100 cubic feet for sewer.

Due to a change in the city’s charter, last year marked the first time the mayor and council set the rates, which previously fell to the now defunct Board of Public Works. The mayor’s 2015 proposal, which increased rates across the board, prompted a public outcry, including criticism from many older residents on fixed incomes who said they could not afford the hikes.

Narkewicz decided to freeze water and sewer rates for a year and reevaluate how the city could pay for large infrastructure needs, including nearly $30 million for wastewater treatment plant improvements and more than $7 million in water line replacements and dam repairs. After working with consultants, the mayor came to the City Council in January with a new plan.

The new fee structure, developed to raise water revenue by about 2 percent and sewer revenue by about 3 percent annually, distinguishes between smaller and larger customers, splitting smaller users into two tiers to promote conservation. Users with 1-inch water meters or smaller — who make up 95 percent of the city’s customer base — would pay a rate of $4.36 per 100 cubic feet for the first 1,600 cubic feet, and $5.82 per 100 cubic feet for use above that. Those with larger meters would pay a single rate of $5.72 per 100 cubic feet.

All customers would pay sewer rates of $7.52 per 100 cubic feet. Most users, who do not have separate sewer meters, would be charged based on 80 percent of water consumption.

In an effort to stabilize revenue, the structure significantly raises fixed fees — from $1 to $12.64 a quarter for the smallest user, though there are breaks for certain users with tax exemptions. The plan also introduces new fire protection fees.

The City Council approved the mayor’s plan 8-1 on first reading, but last week decided to postpone the second vote following strong resistance from the business community and revisions by the mayor lowering volumetric rates across the board.

Who bears the burden?

At issue most of the night was a question of fairness.

“Tapping into the businesses, it’s not right,” said Mansour Ghalibaf, who owns Hotel Northampton and the Fairfield Inn, noting that he has already decided to cut down on flowers considering the cost hikes.

Several business owners noted that foot traffic in the city is flat, and suggested these water and sewer increases are adding to what is already an extremely difficult period in the city’s economy.

“As downtown business goes, so goes the city,” Suher said.

Noting Narkewicz’s affordability concerns for residents, Jeremiah Micka, co-owner of Platform Sports Bar, said businesses, too, are “on a fixed income.”

But Patrick M. Goggins, who owns a real estate agency at 79 King St, said some of the concerns about downtown vacancies are overblown. The former Mercantile and Hempest spaces, which he is managing, have both been filled, he said.

And as a former member of the Board of Public Works, Goggins said he thinks it is “entirely appropriate” for the mayor and City Council to be setting the rates, noting that under the former structure there was never this kind of public debate or thought put into changes.

Chris Woodcock, one of the consultants who developed the plan, said it was in no way anti-business, noting that it gives larger users a rate below the higher rate for smaller users.

Becky Shannon, 63, of 2 Pomeroy Terrace applauded the mayor for what she described as a thoughtful, fair approach to the issue, saying that water infrastructure is a crucial investment and one the city needs to take seriously.

Fire protection charges

Several people at Wednesday’s meeting raised concerns about the mayor’s proposed fire protection charges, which will affect around 250 customers in the city who have separate water lines for fire sprinkler systems. The fees range from $10 a quarter for a 2-inch water line to $645 a quarter for a 10-inch water line. These charges are not included in the city’s online calculator, which allows customers to see how the changes may affect their bills.

Narkewicz characterized the fire protection charges as appropriate fees for customers who he said have for years been using oversized infrastructure that has been subsidized by smaller users — “assigning some fiscal responsibility for certain users that have an impact on the system that’s different from other users.”

But business and property owners pushed back, arguing that fire suppression systems are not luxuries, but mandated by the state. The mayor noted that while this is true, businesses do in some cases have the option of opting for a chemical fire suppression system rather than connecting to the city’s infrastructure.

Narkewicz said he expects the fire protection fees to bring in between $80,000 and $90,000 in revenue.

The council plans to vote on the rate changes at its meeting April 21.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.




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