By Michelle Pelletier Marshall
---- — ROWLEY — Residents will see the water rate increase that was approved at this year’s Town Meeting go into effect with today’s water bills. The rate is a more than 26 percent increase from fiscal year 2013, mainly to cover the costs of building the new $12.3 million water treatment facility in town.
According to Laura Hamilton, business manager for the water department, the department is working to maintain the budget, which for fiscal year 2013 was just over $1.5 million and will rise to nearly $2.1 million in 2014, while still addressing the more than $700,000 in debt the department has incurred due to construction costs.
It is estimated that $1,530,587 will be collected with the current fiscal year water rates compared to the $2,060,522 that is expected to be collected with 2014 rates. All the monies the department has to operate with come from this funding.
The tiered payment system for the 2014 water rates will see increases from $11.25 to $14.91 for 1 to 4,000 gallons; from $13.25 to $17.91 for 4,001 to 10,000 gallons; and from $14.25 to $19.91 for over 10,001 gallons.
Since the approval in 2009 of the $12.3 million treatment plant, water rates have risen steadily, up 10 percent from 2011 to 2012 and more than double that from 2012 to 2013. Additionally, the switch in 2012 from a quarterly to monthly payment system and from a five-tiered to a three-tiered rating system also resulted in more cost for water usage. This is because with fewer tiers, users move more quickly to the next tier, which has a higher rate.
“When you look in the past, the quality of the water was better, but in the last few years we’ve had to treat the water more aggressively and that costs more,” said Hamilton. “The assumption is that once the new treatment plant goes online, which is still on target to be online in the spring of 2014, less water correction will be needed and result in cost savings. Additionally, the debt will begin to decline as we pay off the principal.”
She further explained that the money for the project has been borrowed for a period of 20 years. The expectation was that water rates would increase initially to cover the costs, but within the next 10 years, the rates would level off aided by the fact that three other debts will be paid off.
Approval for a $9 million water treatment plant was given at the 2009 Town Meeting, and another $3.3 million was approved at the 2010 Town Meeting. Engineers from Weston & Sampson of Peabody are overseeing the project, which the town is required to finish under an administrative consent order by the state Department of Environmental Protection, or face exorbitant fines and/or possibly have the DEP take on the project themselves, costing much more money.
The urgent need for a water treatment plant and transmission main was first presented to the Board of Selectmen in October 2009. Repeated incidences with water safety issues, evidenced by the presence of coliform, in two of the towns water stations — Well 5 and Well 3 — had resulted in notices of non-compliance from the DEP, once in 2006 and again in September 2009. (Coliform by itself is not harmful in the water supply; however, it can indicate the presence of harmful bacteria, such as E.coli.)
The town was then required to provide plans to the DEP that outlined how future events of coliform incidents would be addressed, and the building of a water treatment plant satisfied this request. The water board stressed that it would not be proposing such an option if a suitable alternative to correcting the issues with the water were found that was easier or less expensive. There was no tax increase associated with the project, but it was expected at that time that water rates would more than double to fund the initiative.