Flood of red ink prompts new hikes in Chatham water rates

CHATHAM– Over 20 people came to the Tracy Memorial Village Hall last week for a Village Board workshop meeting on increases to the water and sewer rates for residents. Residents were concerned and frustrated with what will be another increase in their bills in less than a year and half. The previous increase in water and sewer rates in March of last year also eliminated a minimum use charge.

Mayor Tom Curran said this workshop was “not actually a meeting, it’s more to get the information out about the costs.” He encouraged village residents who did not attend this meeting to submit written comments to the village. He also said, “Nobody’s happy” about the increase.

The board had talked about raising water and sewer rates for several years before adopting the rate increase last March. In 2014, the board met with their village engineer and the former accounting firm to discuss the issue. At that time, Mayor Curran said, “Our water and sewer (systems) are costing us more than we bring in.”

At the meeting last Thursday, May 10, several residents said their rates doubled after the last increase. The board presented numbers at the meeting with the rates for residents inside the village going up from the current .045 cents per cubic foot of water to .073. The sewer rate would rise from .065 cents to .109.

There are projected deficits in both the water and sewer budgets for the coming budget year, which starts in June and runs through May of 2019. The deficit in sewer could be as high as $559,706 and the water deficit is projected to be $124,983.

Many villagers were confused about where the deficits came from. Noting that there had already been an increase in the water and sewer rates, they asked why the previous increase didn’t close the deficit.

“We raised the rates, but we didn’t raise them enough,” Mayor Curran said. He also said that “as a board we have to be more proactive” in looking at the rates going forward to make sure the revenue from these services will cover the cost. “Our deficit is growing,” he said.

Resident John Howe said that his water and sewer rates had doubled in the last increase, but looking at the budget, the total revenues from these services had increased only 16%. “Why did the revenues not double?” he asked.

He asked that the Village Board have the state conduct an audit of the village books and called for the board to freeze wages and spending until they figure out what is going on.

Several people had questions about the budget for the departments but the mayor and four board members were the only village officials at the workshop. The village treasurer, the village clerk and Trustee Jay Rippel did not attend. Mayor Curran said he was writing down people’s questions so that he could look for answers.

Resident Francis Iaconetti said the board and the public both have questions, and “you don’t have the details.” He said the board needed to present the numbers in black and white to the public.

“I want to know how you make those rates and how you could be so far off,” said resident Melony Spock of the current rates. She said as a property owner in the village she already had to increase the rate for her tenants and would have to do it again if the board raises the water rates.

Former Village Trustee Lael Locke said that an increase would put a tremendous burden on village residents and urged the board to “look out for the people who elected you.”

Michael Blasl, a resident and business owner in the village, said to the board that the public was “walking away just as confused as we came in.”

Resident Edgar Acevedo asked if there was any way to avoid the proposed increase while the village looks for answers.

The mayor said, “I don’t have a lot of confidence in avoiding” the increase. He said the increase will most likely go into effect by June 1, which is done by a board vote.

Trustee Mike Wollowitz said that this was a workshop meeting for the board to review the proposed rates that were put together by the village treasurer. He said, “We were looking at this as a night to go over the numbers” and that the board had “so little public input” up until now.

“We have experts, and they are not here tonight,” Mr. Wollowitz said in response to questions about the rates.

Phil Genovese from the village water and sewer departments, said that the village pumps about 300,000 gallons a day and that the infrastructure in the village is aging with some pipes from the 1920s. “Almost a third of village is antiquated,” he said. Later he added, “It’s not getting any better.” He said that there have been leaks once a month in Ghent and “now we’re at one every two weeks.” Residents in the Town of Ghent, outside of the village, on Route 66 are connected to water from the Village of Chatham. Their rates would go up from .09 cents to .146 with the proposed changes.

Mr. Wollowitz also pointed out that the biggest capital expense in the budget was a major upgrade to the village sewer plant that was done a few years ago. Mr. Genovese said that project was mandated by the state. He and members of the board also talked about future water projects, which include a new water tank at the village reservoir. That project has not moved forward yet.

Rusty Vazac, who owns property in the village, praised the work of Mr. Genovese and his crews but wondered if increasing the rates would be like putting a “band-aid on an artery.”

“We’re going to stop the bleeding but what is the long-term health? And can we afford it?” he said.

“The only way to bring taxes down is to cut services,” said the mayor as the workshop was wrapping up after over an hour of public comments. Mayor Curran thanked everyone for coming out. He said the board would host more meetings about the water rates. The board did not make any motion to increase water rates at their regular meeting, which was held right after the workshop.

The board did vote in favor of a 3% wage increase for the DPW employees starting June 1. The mayor said that the increase was negotiated and budgeted for in 2018-19 budget.

Mr. Howe, who stayed for the regular board meeting, said that he had hoped for a freeze in wages and purchase of material, as he had suggested before. “I think it could have waited a month,” he said of the wage increase.

The board also approved a motion to seek bids for the water tank project at the reservoir.

The next board meeting is Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m. in the Tracy Memorial.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email

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