SALISBURY — The rising costs of operating the town’s water and sewer system is the reason behind a significant hike in water and sewer bills next year for residents and business owners.

Acting as the water and sewer commissioners, the four selectmen present voted unanimously at their special meeting this week to raise both water and sewer rates. Beginning in January, the average family can expect to pay more than $200 more a year for water and sewer service. 

With the prospect of the Water Enterprise Fund being in the red by upward of $300,000 to $400,000 annually beginning in 2016 and the Sewer Enterprise Fund running a deficit of more than $1 million by 2018, selectmen had to act, according to Selectman Freeman Condon, in order to be fiscally responsible.

The town’s water and sewer enterprise funds, which are separate entities that must underwrite the total cost of providing these services to residents and businesses, cannot run deficits under state law. 

According to a study conducted by town consultant Chris Woodcock, without the increases, both enterprise funds won’t have enough income to support themselves within a couple of years, based on expected expenses and required capital improvements due to aging equipment, high demand, debt service, growth and federal regulations.

The cost of running the town’s sewer system is expected to rise substantially due to the town’s aging wastewater treatment plant, which could require a nearly $9 million improvement in order to keep its approvals from state and federal environmental agencies. 

As for water, the town’s growth and its aging water mains make continual demands on the system, with the town drilling new wells, regularly upgrading mains, replacing or repairing water towers, and paying off what it cost to buy the water company in 2001. The cost of that debt service and to hire the department’s administrative staff equals 75 percent in fixed costs in the water system’s annual budget. 

Even conservation isn’t an option to lowering cost, Woodcock said, since 90 percent of the costs to run the sewer system and 93 percent of water expenses remain fixed, no matter how much or how little water is used. 

The rate increase going into effect next year will raise water bills for most single-family homes using an average of 200 gallons a day from $46.35 a month to $54.36, or an $8.01 increase every month, or about $96 a year. 

For sewer, homeowners rated at one unit of Equivalent Residential Usage (EQR), the average use by a single-family home, homeowners paying one EQR would go from paying $30 a month to $40, or $120 more each year.

Combined, such an increase comes to $216 more a year for the average homeowner. 

Businesses that consume a lot of water, like restaurants, will see a more dramatic increase. Restaurants face water bills that relate to the number of gallons used, and for those using 1,000 gallons a day, costs will go up by $28.27, and for those using 2,500 gallons a day, the increase will be $63.82 per month.  

Restaurants will also see an impact from their sewer charges. According to Salisbury Waste Water Treatment Plant operator Jeff Ingalls, restaurants are charged .045 EQR per seat in their dining rooms, and there are a couple of 100-seat restaurants in town. 

The increase for a business charged for five EQRs would go up about $50 a month, according to the rate chart selectmen approved Tuesday night, twice that for those assessed at 10 EQRs. According to Ingalls, for those assessed at more than five EQRs, there is a process in place for them to request adjustments. In the past, he said, there have been instances when there have been downward adjustments.

As for the debate on how to bill for sewer, whether it be by EQR or hooked to the amount of water used, Woodcock said he looked at both. But Salisbury’s uniqueness as a summer tourist community led him to recommend keeping the present EQR system in order to have enough money to support the system.

The huge influx of tourists causes water and sewer use to skyrocket for about a quarter of the year during the summer season, he said, when houses are full at the beach and seasonal businesses are open. For three-quarters of the year, summer residents leave and businesses close up shop. That scenario would reduce the amount of money coming in to run the sewer system, he said, although the costs to run it remain the same.

Of the 351 cities and towns in the state, Woodcock said about 22 use EQR’s as a basis for sewer charges. Of those 22, many are similar to Salisbury in their seasonal nature, like the coastal island communities of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In Maine, he said, the communities of Kennebunk, Wells and York, all summer tourist communities, bill sewer charges using the EQR, flat-rate system.

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