North Adams City Council OKs 5 percent water rate hike

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NORTH ADAMS — City residents will see a 5 percent increase in their water rates beginning July 1.

The City Council approved the hike by a 7-2 margin on Tuesday, with councilors Robert Moulton Jr. and Ronald Boucher voicing opposition to the plan.

In his initial proposal to the council, Mayor Richard Alcombright requested a 5 percent increase but accidentally and incorrectly included figures that reflect a 3 percent increase. Those figures were amended on the fly on Tuesday, amending the proposed North Adams rate from $3.85 to $4.04 per 100 cubic feet.

Rates for Clarksburg residents tied into the city's system would jump from $6.63 to $6.92 and rates for Williamstown residents would rise from $7.32 to $7.68 per 100 cubic feet.

Alcombright maintained that the city's water rate and sewer fee remain competitive relative to other towns across the commonwealth.

"Not that it really matters to anybody who is paying the bill, and I realize that, but out water rates ... are still very, very reasonable, and our sewer rates are even much more so reasonable," Alcombright said.

Councilor Eric Buddington requested the city consider a rate structure that charges little or nothing for the first "so many of gallons" of water for a given residence, which Alcombright said the city will consider.

"Just consider making it easy on the people who are just scraping by. I recognize there are quite a lot of complexities in choosing how to do that," Buddington said.

Though he said he understood the system, Boucher said he understood the other side as well and noted some people just barely get by.

"It may not seem a lot to us; I have the ability to cover it, but some people don't," Boucher said.

Alcombright noted the water rates have been increased three times in the previous seven years. Prior to that, he argued, the city raised the rates more frequently.

"Water rate increases were kind of just another normal, natural part of sustaining revenue for the city," Alcombright said. "Not throwing a stone, because I voted for most of those [as a city councilor]."

It was under the Alcombright administration that the city instituted a sewer fee, which effectively increased residents' water bills by 50 percent. But Councilor Lisa Blackmer noted that those services were still paid for by residents, but through property taxes based on the value of a house.

"[The sewer fee is] tied into actual usage, and that seemed more justifiable," Blackmer said.

Councilor Joshua Moran noted that, with a water rate increase, there are "things that you can do to offset that cost."

"No one enjoys taxes going up but I think at least this you have direct control over," Moran said.

Councilor Kate Merrigan said she's also had conversations with people "who are homeowners and taxpayers in our community who have said 'I'm happy to pay an extra $40 to $70 a year if that's what it takes to maintain our infrastructure.' "

"I think we don't always necessarily hear from those people live at meetings, but those are conversations I have frequently," Merrigan said.

The council discussed the potential of placing revenues from water and sewer bills into an enterprise fund that could only be utilized for water and sewer related costs.

Alcombright said the city is actively considering such a move, but noted there are some potential pitfalls — including a scenario in which the city collects less in water and sewer revenues than it spends on providing those services. He said the administration would likely come to council in early 2017 with a recommendation.

Administrative Officer Michael Canales noted the city wants to have a water and sewer rate study conducted using Community Development Block Grant funds that would help it analyze the pros and cons of an enterprise fund and different methods of assessing rates.

Revenues are currently about $2.5 million for water and sewer, but the city pays $1.15 million to the Hoosac Water Quality District and more than $700,000 in debt payments for upgrades to the water treatment plant annually.

"You can see how quickly it adds up, and there's some other debt on there too," Canales said.

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376


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