Cost is sewer concern

BAR HARBOR — Discussion of the proposed sewer budget for fiscal year 2016 stirred strong emotions Tuesday as town councilors shared concerns about the rising costs of living here.

The average homeowner’s bill in the proposed budget, said Finance Director Stan Harmon, would increase 2.6 percent to an annual $602 for average usage of 8,000 cubic feet.

Taken together with the 18 percent increase in water rates already approved, councilor David Bowden said, “this would be a more than 20 percent increase in water and sewer for citizens. That is a big hit. These large increases don’t jive with our goals to create affordable housing. How much would you have to cut to make this a zero percent increase?”

Councilor Burt Barker agreed, saying “we have to do a better job of keeping increases as low as possible,” but noted that the council should signal that intention earlier in the budgeting process. “We’ve got to be ahead of the game. It’s hard to cut things after the fact.”

Debate included discussion of reinstating the sewer connection fee, which was eliminated in the spring of 2013 due to concerns that it hampered expansion plans of small businesses. At the time, councilors hoped those expansions would increase sewer volume, offsetting the lost revenue.

That increase has not yet appeared, councilor Gary Friedman said. “The impact of getting rid of the fee was that the rate went up 2.7 percent, so it was the regular ratepayer subsidizing new development.” He introduced a motion to introduce the sewer budget with the connection fee reinstated at half its former rate. The motion failed 3-4, with “yes” votes from Friedmann, Barker and Clark Stivers.

The council eventually voted 6-1 to accept the budget proposal and schedule a public hearing for Aug. 4. Barker was the dissenting vote. An earlier motion from Bowden, instructing town staff to bring back another proposal with no rate increase, failed by a 2-5 vote. “Yes” votes were from Bowden and Anne Greenlee.

The 2.6 increase is in the blended rate, Harmon explained, achieved by increasing the “operations” rate 4.2 percent and leaving the “capital” rate unchanged.

Harmon proposed an amendment to the town’s sewer ordinance merging the operations and capital rate categories, a change he said would be revenue neutral. The rate categories were separated 20 years ago to spread the $7.5 million cost of the sewer plant between different types of users. It doubled rates for hotels, restaurants and seasonal users, while regular residential users saw only a 30 percent increase.

Merging the rates would simplify billing for town staff and reduce confusion for customers, Harmon said. The council unanimously approved the change.


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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