2016-03-10 / Front Page

City Sewer Rate Hike Is Likely

By Barry Bridges

Under proposed rate increases that could be necessary to fund continued improvements in the city’s wastewater and stormwater collection system, the average residential customer in Newport could see sewer fees increase to over $1,000 annually beginning in 2017.

This was the projection when the city’s Director of Utilities Julia Forgue presented City Councilors with a detailed analysis of the ongoing capital needs and operating expenses of the sewer system at a pre-budget workshop on Wednesday, March 2.

The current residential sewer rate is $13.89 per 1,000 gallons put into the system. The average residential customer uses 4,000 gallons per month, which translates into an annual sewer charge of $666.72. When a combined sewer overflow (CSO) fixed fee of $192 is added in, the annual tab comes to $858.72.

The proposed rate for Fiscal Year 2017 would increase to $17.32 per 1,000 gallons, with the continued $192 CSO fee bringing the average annual total to $1,023.36.

That would amount to a yearly increase of around $164, or 19.2 percent.

Officials explained that the increase is necessary largely because of a 2011 consent decree with the federal government, under which the city agreed to eliminate discharges of sewage into Narragansett Bay from its treatment plant and wastewater collection system.

City Manager Joseph Nicholson reminded councilors that the decree “mandates us by law to process certain improvements to our sewer plant and to our collection system…. We have to stick with all the timelines that the decree has locked us in to.”

Some of the projects facing compliance dates are improvements to the Washington and Wellington CSO facilities, and updates at the Ruggles Avenue pumping station. Looking ahead, a re-route of the North End sewer line has to be completed by 2021.

At the same time, the system regularly needs significant improvements and often demands emergency repairs.

“It seems the more we investigate the condition of the system, the more things we find that keep adding to the needs,” said Forgue.

The increased rate estimate assumes that $50,000 can be transferred from the city’s Maritime Fund, and $200,000 from the Parking Fund, with the theory being that paved parking areas contribute stormwater to the system.

Another issue from a revenue perspective is that Newporters have decreased their water consumption. The lower usage has been figured into the calculations.

The rate increase is not a done deal in this early stage of the city’s budget cycle, and other revenue streams are being explored to reduce the impact.

“Some things that have been mentioned are an allocation from the meals and beverage tax, and even a contribution from the General Fund,” Forgue said. “We have also talked about alternative strategic options, such as forming a stormwater utility or using a different management model for the system.”

Pressed by councilors, Nicholson emphasized that the funding alternatives presented were simply ideas at this point. “These [options] are not refined, but are some things that might help us in terms of dedicated monies toward these improvements…. We’re just trying to stream out and brainstorm some ideas.”

Councilor Kathryn Leonard asked, “With the consent decree, we were told over and over that the court would look at affordability [in meeting the requirements]. Have we reached a point where we can say it might not be affordable?”

Forgue responded, “The decree was amended for affordability by extending it out for 30 years. Originally, all of this work had to be completed by June 30, 2018.”

With the information that a one-dollar increase in sewer rates brings in approximately $680,000, Councilor Justin McLaughlin agreed that other funding sources should be examined.

“The Department of Justice sued the city, not the users,” he said in reference to the consent decree. He noted that meal and beverage taxes should be fair game, as they are largely paid by visitors. He also suggested that it would be reasonable to bump up beach parking fees by one dollar.

“We can do a number of things that would have a dramatic impact on a lot of residents when it comes to these costs,” McLaughlin said. “Finding money elsewhere is an admirable objective that we should be looking at.”

Nicholson concurred. “We have to remember that it’s all about water quality…. Everyone from inside and outside of our community enjoys the bay, so we need to look at the bigger pie.”

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