By Lisa Capobianco
The Southington Town Council voted 5 to 3, along party lines, Monday to change the structure of the current sewer billing system, which will make the process more automotive, but increase sewer rates in order to make up for lost revenue over the years.
“We have found that our billing system structure is flawed for a number of reasons,” said Town Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury during the Council meeting. “The worst is that we’re not bringing in enough revenue to cover our expenses, our yearly sewer expenses. We’re falling behind every year.”
This spring, the town will connect sewer billing to a new automatic billing system, saving hours of manual labor. With this new automatic process comes a change in the methodology of the current sewer billing system, which separates residents into three distinct groups: regular customers, “snow birds” and well owners. Each group receives an annual bill using a different methodology, making the sewer billing system subjective, town officials said.
“We discovered this problem with the sewer system and the process of the sewer system,” said Southington Town Manager Garry Brumback, adding that the billing system was also not in compliance with the town’s Sewer Act. “It was so subjective and it had so many subjections built into it that it was unable to be automated.”
In order to make the process automatic and consistent with the Sewer Act, the Engineering Department conducted a study of the current billing system, determining different methods to improve the process. The study mentioned four problems of the current process that should be addressed, one of which includes changing the billing cycle from billing for future use to billing for the actual use of water consumption.
As a solution, Town Engineer Keith Hayden recommended a 26 percent increase in revenue in which 16 percent would be based on actual water consumption and 10 percent based on a rate increase. The new billing process would have two components: a flat rate based on one-third of the annual sewer budget and a rate based on water consumption.
For the average resident (a regular customer), there would be a flat rate of $180 (per year or $45 per quarter) plus a metered rate of $3 per 100 CF (cubic feet). Private well users would have a flat rate of $400, which is based on the median residential bill. In addition, homeowners could install irrigation meters to subtract the amount of water that does not end up in the sewer.
The second part of the solution involves a transition over three to five years from annual to quarterly billing. Annual bills will be sent in April for each of the three billing districts, and quarterly statements will be sent starting this July.
“If we start billing on total water usage, we’re going to pick up 16 percent just in revenue that is lost right now because we don’t see that—because we annualize in the fourth quarter,” Hayden said during the meeting, adding that other recommendations include adjusting rates annually for inflation. “That actually is a more accurate reflection of what’s going into the sewer system.”
By changing the methodology of the current sewer billing system, town officials hope to make up for lost revenue while making the system fairer for residents. Over the years, sewer rates in Southington have not reflected inflation, thereby not receiving a sufficient amount to cover the cost of operating expenses. According to the Department of Engineering report, the annual cost of maintaining and operating the sewer plant is $5.5 million per year, and one-third of the annual costs can be directly attributed to the amount of sewage flow, disposal, sludge hauling, chemicals, etc.
“It’s the perfect time now to have the billing system designed so that it is efficient and supports both the operations and capital costs of the wastewater treatment system,” Brumback said.
Over the years, Brumback said increases in sewer fees remained inconsistent, with several years exhibiting no increases while having dramatic increases other years, leaving residents devastated suddenly they see a 20 percent increase in their bills.
“What we’re trying to do is keep the revenue in pace with inflation and avoid dramatic increases,” Brumback said.
During the meeting, Republicans voted in favor of changing the structure of the current billing system.
“It’s a very unfair billing system-people are getting away scot-free and other people are paying for that,” said Town Council Chairman Mike Riccio.
Council Democrats did not vote in favor of changing the methodology of the current billing system, requesting more time to make a more informed decision for the benefit of Southington residents.
“I agree that we need to address the problem, I just don’t agree with the timing of it,” said Minority Leader Chris Palmieri.
During the meeting, Town Councilor John Barry, a Democrat, noted concern about the 20 percent increase in sewer rates between 2008 and 2010, but then a 4 percent increase in 2012.
“I just want to make sure that the problems in the past are not going to happen again in the future,” added Town Councilor John Barry, expressing concern about inconsistent increases in sewer rates and how they will affect Southington residents.
The Council also voted 7 to 1 to schedule a public hearing on the increase in sewer rates for its next meeting on Monday, Feb. 24.