Utility district bill headed for passage



SOUTHWEST HARBOR — A bill to authorize Southwest Harbor to create an independent water and sewer district is making its way through the Maine Legislature.

Town officials say that creating a utilities district to be responsible for the water and sewer systems would improve efficiency, lower costs for customers and promote long-range infrastructure planning.

The town currently owns and operates the utilities. The board of selectmen, sitting as the water and sewer board, adopts policies, sets rates and establishes the annual budgets.

But over the years, the two utilities, which are supposed to be funded by user fees, accumulated debt to the town’s general fund of nearly $1 million. Since 2010, the water department’s debt has been paid off. But despite a 50 percent increase in sewer rates four years ago, the sewer department’s debt is still more than $500,000. Selectmen approved another 7 percent rate hike last month.

The bill before the Legislature would authorize the town to transfer ownership of the utilities to a water and sewer district overseen by an independent board and managed by a licensed professional. If the bill passes, the town’s voters would still have to approve the creation of a utilities district.

The Legislature’s committee on energy, utilities and technology held a public hearing on the bill last Wednesday. The two people who testified in support of the bill were Town Manager Don Lagrange and Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock), who introduced the bill at the request of town officials. No one spoke against the bill, and committee members asked only a few questions.

Lagrange told the committee that neither the water nor sewer department had an annual operating budget prior to 2011 and that town officials in the past have not provided adequate oversight of the utilities because of lack of expertise and the press of other town business.

“The goal of self-reliance in both utilities can only be accomplished with the creation of a district, separate from all political influences and municipal management,” he said.

He said an independent water and sewer district also would have the advantage of “a team with the sole responsibility and oversight that will lead to an efficient operation to stabilize user rates while encouraging strategic infrastructure capital improvements.”

Langley noted in his testimony that a large majority of Maine municipalities with public water or sewer systems have stand-alone districts to oversee them.

“Among the many advantages of these districts is the separation of the management of rate-based services from the management of tax-based services,” he said.

According to Langley’s bill, the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District would be managed by a three-member board of trustees. One member would be the town manager. The other two would be appointed by the board of selectmen to three-year terms.

Lagrange said following the public hearing that, assuming the Legislature passes the bill, it hasn’t been decided when the town’s voters would be asked to approve the creation of a water and sewer district. It could be on the ballot for the November election or for a special town meeting.

“I think we’ll go to the voters when we’ve given them enough information to make an intelligent decision,” Lagrange said. “So, we need to do a lot of public hearings, a lot of mailers, a lot of notices. Then, once everybody has all the facts, they can decide.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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