SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The quest by town officials to create a water and sewer district has passed a significant hurdle but must meet with voter approval before going into effect.
On June 21, the Legislature approved an act to create the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District. The bill was passed into law without the governor’s signature and becomes effective 90 days after the approval date.
“We can’t form the district before the 90 days are up,” said Town Manager Don Lagrange.
Southwest Harbor voters have to give their approval as well. They will be asked if they favor merging the town’s water and sewer departments to create a Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District. Lagrange said he hopes to have the question ready for the November elections. Public hearings on the issue are to be held prior to the vote.
Voters also will be asked if they wish to transfer the assets of the water and sewer departments to the district.
Lagrange said he is unsure how the town would proceed if voters give the nod to the first question and turn down the second. The issue most likely would require a legal interpretation, he said.
Creation of the district is seen by town officials as a way to get the costs of running the public utilities under control. Southwest Harbor has the 34th highest water rates and the 16th highest sewer rates of the approximately 155 municipalities surveyed in Maine, Lagrange said.
“We’re expensive,” he said. “Our goal is to stabilize the rates.”
Districts in general are run more efficiently than water and sewer departments, Lagrange maintains. The reason, he said, is districts have a board of trustees whose oversight and focus on the bottom line leads to economies.
The charter for the district sets a three-member board, with one of the members being the town manager. The other two are to be appointed by selectmen. A selectman cannot hold the office, Lagrange said.
Day-to-day operations of the district would fall to a manager superintendent, Lagrange said. This would be a new position.
Historically, user fees for the water and sewer departments have not kept up with costs. At one time, the departments had to borrow almost $1 million from the town’s general fund to maintain operations. The water department has since reimbursed the town, but the sewer department still needs to repay about $535,000.