SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The sewer department, which is supposed to be entirely self-supporting, continues to drain money from the town’s coffers.
The board of selectmen, sitting as the water and sewer board, will hold a public hearing March 10 on a proposed 7 percent increase in sewer fees. Following the hearing, the board will decide whether to enact the increase, which would go into effect July 1.
According to James Wadman, the accountant who audits the town’s books, the sewer department’s debt to the general fund stood at $554,884 as of June 30 of last year.
“The wastewater department is in a tough financial position,” Wadman told the selectmen. “There has been a very slight improvement this past year. But that amount isn’t going to be repaid overnight. It’s going to take a number of years.”
Selectman Lydia Goetze noted that the sewer department isn’t supposed to dip into the town’s general fund, which is taxpayer money, to balance revenues and expenses.
“We’re required by ordinance to cover operation and maintenance costs with user fees, and we haven’t been doing that,” she said.
And it doesn’t appear that much progress is being made in rectifying that situation.
The budget for the current fiscal year calls for the sewer department to repay the town $26,345. But so far, more than halfway through the budget year, no payments have been made.
And despite the proposed 7 percent rate increase, the budget for next year that the selectmen approved earlier this month has the sewer department repaying the town only $17,923. That is 32 percent less than the amount that is supposed to be repaid in the current year.
The budget does not anticipate any additional borrowing from the town, however.
The total sewer department budget for next year is $562,275. That is an increase of $31,581, or 5.95 percent.
A large portion of the budget increase is for salaries and benefits. Capital improvement spending is to rise by $9,135 to $33,460.
In 2010, the selectmen attempted to keep the sewer department from having to continue raiding the town’s general fund by enacting a 49.8 percent increase in user fees.
The cost of operating the sewage treatment plant doesn’t fluctuate very much, regardless of the volume of sewage. Given that, Town Manager Don Lagrange said the key to balancing the sewer department’s finances is to attract more residents.
“We don’t have enough customers for the [treatment] facility we have,” he said. “We’re only using about two-thirds of its capacity. If we had more users, we’d be in pretty good shape.”