Utility spin off eyed by officials

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Creating a quasi-municipal utilities district to own and operate the water and sewer systems here could improve efficiency, lower costs for customers and promote long-range planning, according to town officials.

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

Under the organizational structure being considered, selectmen would appoint a three-member board of trustees to oversee the utilities. That board would hire a manager.

“We have some good workers right now, but we have no one to plan for our future,” said town manager Don Lagrange. “We could probably just hire engineers to come in all the time, but I think we should have someone on board, probably with an engineering degree, to focus on the utilities 100 percent of the time.”

Fees paid by water customers cover the water system’s operating costs. But the sewer system doesn’t pay for itself despite an increase in sewer rates a few years ago.

According to a town ordinance, both utilities are supposed to be self-supporting, but some property tax money is needed each year to bridge the gap between the sewer system’s income and expenses.

Selectman Lydia Goetze has compared the cost of water and sewer services in Southwest Harbor to the average costs paid by utility customers in cities and towns across the state.

“Our water rates are somewhat above average for the state,” she said. “Our sewer rates are a fair amount higher than the average of towns with metered rates.”

Southwest Harbor has about 550 residential sewer customers. Goetze said she compared the rate they pay with the rates in Maine towns with 350 to 750 residential customers.

“We’re on the order of 30 percent higher than they are,” she said. “That’s not pennies.”

Goetze also looked at whether there seemed to be any correlation between the type of management structure for public utilities and the rates that customers pay.

“Those with a management structure like ours run higher than those with a joint water-sewer district,” she said. “But we’re talking about a small number of systems, so one or two outliers could make a big difference. But it’s possible that changing our management structure would help us keep expenses under control.”

Having a utilities manager would be an added cost. But Goetze noted that prior to last year, the town employed a full-time public works director who was an engineer and was able to make some improvements in the operation of the utilities.

“If you have somebody with the right training and experience, you probably can find ways to operate them more efficiently,” she said.

Both she and Lagrange said it would be good for the selectmen to hand over responsibility for the utilities to a separate board of trustees.

“The comprehensive plan recommended that there be a water-sewer advisory board, feeling that the select board has lot of matters on its mind. Having people who are paying particular attention to water and sewer would make a lot of sense,” Goetze said.

Creating a joint water-sewer district in Southwest Harbor would require the approval of the state Legislature. Lagrange has enlisted the help of the Maine Rural Water Association in drafting a bill. That draft is now being reviewed by the town attorney.

It is unclear whether the bill will be ready in time to be taken up in the session of the Legislature that begins in January. Once the bill passes, assuming it does, Southwest Harbor voters would have two years to approve the plan to transfer ownership and operation of the town’s utilities to the water and sewer district.

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]

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