By Lisa Capobianco
With the Southington Town Council voting 6 to 3 in approval of new sewer rates, local residents may see an increase in their bills.
During Monday’s council meeting, Republicans voted in favor of the new sewer rates, while Democrats voted against it. The new billing system will be based on two parts: a fixed rate and a variable rate, which will be based on actual usage of water. The variable rate will be reduced from $4.33 per 100 cubic feet (CF), and the fixed rate will be assessed in three categories of customers: residential, commercial and industrial. Residents using the sewer system will be charged annually $180, and both industrial and commercial customers will have a fixed rate of $250. Residents on private wells will be charged a flat rate of $400 per household. If they decide to install a water meter, they will pay the residential flat rate of $180 and the residential rate of the amount of water they use.
Under the new process, residents will also receive quarterly bills, starting in July after receiving their annual bill in April. The quarterly bills will be based on actual water consumption. There will also be a one-time fee of $500 for new customers.
“This has felt like a rushed process,” said Minority Leader Chris Palmieri, who initially made a motion to table. “There’s a lot of inequity that we heard tonight—there’s even confusion among ourselves.”
“There’s a lot of free sewage flowing through the sewer plant…people are paying for that free sewage—that’s not fair,” replied Council Chairman Mike Riccio. “We should also be fighting for the people who will see a decrease in their bill, who have been paying all these years.”
During a public hearing that took place before the vote, local residents expressed their thoughts on the new changes to the billing system, most of them in disapproval.
Resident Larry DePaolo also spoke out against the new billing system, expressing concern about private well customers paying a higher flat rate.
“Is that fair,” DePaolo questioned. “A widow or widower living in a home by themselves with a well pays a flat fee of $400—today, they pay $130—that’s a $270 increase for that single person.”
Southington resident Chester Knell said he has already seen his sewer rates triple since 2006, and voiced his concern that the new changes will have a negative impact on local seniors.
“For senior citizens, this is going to be a big hit,” Knell said to council members.
“I do feel sorry for the senior community who do not use a lot of the services, and they’re going to be paying a big cost for this,” added resident Angela Bowman.
Resident Pamela DePaolo spoke in favor of the new billing process. She said it will “discourage wasteful usage” of the water supplies.
“I think this is a good plan being put into action,” said DePaolo. “Most people may pay more, but people who are going to conserve water and those who abuse water—that’s going to be brought to a forefront.”
During the last council meeting held in the beginning of February, the council voted to change the methodology of the current sewer system. During that time, the Sewer Committee addressed the situation, explaining several problems of the current sewer rate system, and the reasons for the proposed increase in rates.
Town Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury, who serves as chairperson of the Sewer Committee, reported that not only was the current sewer rate system not automotive, but it also failed to collect sufficient revenue to pay annual expenses. The shortfall estimate for this year is $287,000, according to the Sewer Department, and change in the rate structure will collect an additional 16 percent of the required revenue currently not collected.
The cost to operate the sewer plant annually is $5.5 million. “We were leaking money—we were not taking in enough revenue to pay for these sewer expenses each year,” said Lounsbury. “In fact, we were bleeding about a quarter of a million dollars a year, so we were taking a quarter of a million dollars less than it costs to use that sewer plant.”
The current sewer system relies exclusively on estimates of water used during the winter months to set rates used to charge customers for the full year. As a result, this approach causes biased billing that cannot keep pace with the expenses of the sewer system, triggering dramatic increases every couple of years, town officials said.
“We are the only town with this kind of rate structure,” Lounsbury said.
Lounsbury also addressed how the new billing process will affect residents with large in-ground pools and sprinkler systems, since sewer bills are now based in part on water consumption. Those residents can install a separate water meter so they will not be charged for the water they use not entering the sewer system. Lounsbury said a water meter costs an estimate of $200.
“We’re looking into being able to buy some meters in bulk so that we can get a group discount,” Lounsbury said. “We are really trying to do what’s best for all aspects of the population, and make sure that whatever you pay in the sewer is what you use.”
During her motion to vote in approval of the new sewer rates, Lounsbury proposed an appeals process for ratepayers eligible for financial assistance through Southington Community Services.
“I’m going to propose a motion that we cast the sewer rate increases with one addition—that we set up an appeals process through Community Services for hardship cases,” Lounsbury said. “I think there were some significant reasons that there may be some seniors and there may be some people undergoing significant hardship.”