2017-05-18 / Opinion

Not Feeling So Flush

Newport This Week recently reported that the city’s sewer rate, already one of the highest in the state, continues to rise.

Based on the proposed fiscal 2018 budget, the average Newporter should be prepared for a yearly increase of $65.28 to their water utility bills, resulting in an annual sewer charge of just over $1,000. That total includes the fixed annual combined sewer outflow (CSO) fee of $192 for most residents that has been in effect since 2011. The hike represents a 6.48 percent increase over last year and an anticipated increase of 7.19 percent for fiscal 2019.

Many local residents wonder why Middletown’s water bills are less pricey. Unlike Middletown, Newport’s water utility bills also cover capital improvements, sewer and stormwater.

Capital improvements include the $30 million in upgrades and repairs already completed over the past several years. In addition, the city has been required by both the EPA and RIDEM to comply with a five-year, $55 million Capital Improvement Plan to address and mitigate CSO discharges.

Basically, Newport is trying to pay $80 million of work on the water system with revenue from water utility bills, which is why they are so expensive. Not only that, seasonal residents, who use less water may contribute less, so most of the burden goes on families who live in Newport year-round.

Just as everyone pays for roads, everyone should pay equally for Newport’s 47 miles of storm drains and catch basins, and the UV storm water disinfection system. Taxpayers share the cost of roads; shouldn't it be the same for underneath the roads?

There is no magic wand here. Revenue from water utility bills will never catch up with the $80 million price tag. It’s like hoping people will waste water to gain more tax dollars. Although a proposed fixed stormwater utility fee is being considered in Newport, Middletown recently tabled the idea because residents are wary of more fees.

Using water usage rates to fund capital improvements is not fair to year-round residents. Capital improvement should come from the general fund or other fixed income streams, so every household pays its fair share.

This could be a lightbulb moment. With the 2018 election still 18 months away, maybe it’s time to think about putting the question in the hands of those who live and work in Newport. And to ask city administrators to push back on regulators and explore more sustainable funding mechanisms, such as placing a bond on the 2018 ballot.

There is still time to do something, before it becomes increasingly difficult for Newport to absorb the costs, and all that water revenue ends up going down the drain.

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