by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – The November 4 select board meeting had a long agenda, but was well ahead of schedule until “Item No. 2 – Linda Mae Clow has requested to discuss the new water and sewer rates” came up.
The agenda item led to a nearly half-hour-long discussion over residents’ anger over the increase in the water and sewer rates, and the change to the rate structure. It did not calm things when the board pointed out that it decides new rates every year in the summer, and almost no one attended the select board meetings where the rates were decided.
Citing what she called an almost 25 percent increase, one resident said she was paying “almost as much as for [property] taxes.”
The increase, as pointed out by chair Eric Remick, vice chair Ceilidh Galloway Kane, public works foreman Tom Fadden, and Town Manager David Upson is almost entirely due to the necessary work on the wastewater treatment plant’s bond, which voters approved at town meeting.
Fadden said “the sewer plant needs big upgrades to keep it online and keep it going. If you can’t keep it online and keep it going, you’re going to be spending sixty million dollars.”
He also pointed out that some of those upgrades were due to state mandates the town had no control over. Remick said “it costs money to run a sewer plant, so we have to charge money for it.”
Residents were not pleased that the select board had lowered the 10,000-gallon quarterly water usage threshold to 8,000. Galloway-Kane said that when the board decided the rates in the summer, it looked at usage and a significant percentage were using 8,000 gallons or less, but paying the same as those using 10,000 gallons. Business manager Casey Rowell said that about 45 percent of customers were using less than 8,000 gallons, and Remick said those people were “essentially subsidizing everybody else.” Galloway-Kane said the goal was to make the rate structure more equitable.
One resident asked if the board had done its research on average water usage per person before making the decision, saying “this [data] is all national [figures], this isn’t something I’m making up… this is research that should have been done.” It was suggested that the board should have called a special town meeting before making a structural change to the rates.
Board member Michael Deering said the “sticker shock was kind of amazing” from the rate increase, but he had property in another community and Hardwick’s rates were “significantly less… hundreds of bucks [less].” A resident cited Springfield as having a rate of “$56 a year.”
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a multi-state database of water and sewer rates and includes all of Vermont’s utilities, based on data from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). It has a dashboard that allows people to see the rates by town based on usage, and to give context, it uses rates as a percentage of median household income.
Based on the rates from the DEC, for single-person households, Hardwick’s rate per quarter for water and sewer is in the middle of the eleven other NEK utilities operated municipally that offer both water and sewer, and nearly double the lowest rate of $93 per quarter for Derby Center. For a three-person household, Hardwick is estimated to cost $300 per quarter. Only Barton, Lyndonville, and Bloomfield are higher.
Remick said the board did not weigh the option of incentivizing residents to consume less water such as through an Efficiency-Vermont-style rebate for appliances that consume the most water, such as toilets.