Rate reduction? Ridgefield will study ways to shrink sewer bills

The existing Wastewater Treatment Facility on South Street.

The existing Wastewater Treatment Facility on South Street.

Folks just don’t like it. But, prices follow costs — up. What can be done?

The town’s 60 percent hike in sewer rates isn’t going over well with users, and the selectmen have agreed to search for a way to moderate the increase — although none of them could see an obvious path to cutting the increase down.

“There’s been a lot of talk and concern,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told fellow selectmen. “I think we should take another look at it, to see if there’s something to be done — and what that is, I don’t know.”

The rate hike has raised the cost of a single sewer unit from $470 to $750 a year. That’s the cost increase for a single-family house. Multifamily properties and many businesses would pay more.

“The rate increase of 60 percent,” Marconi said, “has impacted not only single-family residents but business owners, multiple units — it’s a huge impact.”

The rate hike was designed to cover the cost of a $48 million sewer renovation project, approved by voters in November 2018. The renovation plan will rebuild one of the town’s two sewer plants and close the other.

Rate increase was set by the Water Pollution Control Authority, not the selectmen, and took effect July 1.

“Yes, the sewer rate went up up, with a jump in this year to help provide a less steep annual increase in rates in future years,” WPCA chairwoman Amy Siebert said.

The increase, she said, is “necessary to fund the major project to bring the wastewater treatment plants up to snuff and allow us to meet our permit requirements.”

More increases

Further increases can be expected, but the WPCA will try to hold them down.

“The rate structure will be looked at annually with respect to actual and anticipated operating and capital expenses, and the WPCA hopes to see rate increases in future years be in the single digits, preferably on the lower end of that spectrum,” Siebert said. “Again, this is dependent upon operating and capital budget needs and will be determined annually. So forecasts for those years into the future are subject to change.”

Tax Collector Jane Berendsen-Hill told the finance board in late August that sewer fees were projected to undergo “a doubling over a five-year period” — which would take sewer fees from last year’s $470 to around $940 a year by 2024-25.

Raising the issue at the Sept. 18 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Marconi emphasized that the sewer project was needed to meet increasingly tough state and federal environmental standards — as well as to replace aging wastewater treatment facilities.

“This was mandated by the State of Connecticut,” Marconi said.

Among the project’s goals are to improve treatment of wastewater for phosphorus removal, nitrogen removal and also processing for zinc, Marconi said. The work also entails “a general upgrade of a plant that’s 30 years old.”

Marconi noted that the project involved not only rebuilding the South Street treatment plant that serves Sewer District One, but the demolition of the District Two treatment plant off Route 7 and construction of a pipeline and pumping station to carry wastewater from District Two — the commercial area around the intersection of Routes 7 and 35 — to South Street for treatment at the rebuilt District One plant.

The District Two demolition, pipeline and pump station project is due to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission next week, with a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 in the town hall annex.

High bids

The District One plant renovation was approved by planning and zoning in May. Then the construction bids came in higher than expected.

“We figured it at $32 million, and the bid came in at $37 million,” Marconi told the selectmen.

Marconi said he’d urged the Water Pollution Control Authority to avoid an even larger increase as a result of the District One bids exceeding the estimate. He recommended the WPCA drop — or postpone, for now — a planned renovation of a pump station somewhere else along the system, that was projected to cost a similar amount.

“The people won’t approve it, that was my input,” Marconi said.

The plant project is most — but not all — of the reason for the fee increase.

“It’s not just the cost of the upgrade,” Marconi said. “But you’re covering all your operating expenses, as well, under that increase.”

Marconi said the owner of the 25-unit apartment building had called and “said this will cost each resident there $25 a month.

One idea the selectmen kicked around briefly was trying to stretch out the construction borrowing for a longer period.

“The plant we have now opened in ’90 — it’s 30 years old,” Marconi said. “Maybe we could look at a 30-year bond.”

“That would really bring it down,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

Use more, pay more?

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark raised an idea that some critics of the increase have suggested in letters to the editor — moving to a use-based system. Under this concept, rather than charging the same one unit for each single family residence, and more for commercial properties, the charges would be based on properties’ sewer usage, which could be measured by tracking water consumption.

This would require water meters on all properties that are on the sewer lines. Currently, not all sewer users are on Aquarion water lines and have their water use measured. Some have their own wells.

Water-metering could be “very heavy cost-involved,” said Selectman Bob Hebert.

In her Sept. 22 email response to The Press, WPCA Chairwoman Siebert mentioned a few possibilities that might be studied to moderate the price increase.

“We can look into the ideas being put forward with respect to options like billing quarterly to at least spread out payment, and discuss with the state if there are any other options — we are taking advantage of all the grants possible and the low interest rate provided through the Clean Water Fund program at the state level,” she said.

While there was no vote on it, the selectmen seemed to have a bipartisan consensus to try to reduce the rate hike.

“We should look at somehow, some way, with the rate consultant used,” Marconi said, “...to see if we can approach it differently.”