May 21 public hearing set for major change to sewer rates

By Susan Mustapich | May 13, 2019
Photo by: Susan Mustapich A federal agency has informed Camden officials that sewer rate changes to include the costs of capital improvements are required to receive a federal grant for the planned upgrade to Camden's wastewater treatment plant.

CAMDEN — A public hearing will be held May 21 to discuss a change to include payments for the upcoming wastewater treatment plant upgrade in sewer rates, which is estimated to increase rates by 48 percent.

The public hearing will be held during the Select Board meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the John French Jr. conference room on Washington Street.

The proposed change is necessary in order to obtain a federal grant from the USDA Rural Development Agency of at least $1 million towards the cost of the treatment plant upgrade, according to Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell. The grant does not have to be repaid, and will lower the amount the town has to borrow. Rural Development issues grants and low-interest bond financing for wastewater treatment facility development and improvement.

She said the projected cost of $13.9 million has crept up to around $15 million, according to estimates. Over the past year, town officials have seen bids for everything from school construction to roads and sidewalks come in over budget.

Caler-Bell explained to the Select Board May 7 that throughout Maine, cities and towns factor the cost of improvements to wastewater treatment into sewer rates, but that Camden has chosen to pay for improvements through property taxes. Rural Development  informed her that Camden's method of recouping the costs of upgrades and improvements from all property taxpayers is unusual, and that the town would not qualify for grant money if it continued to do this.

USDA grants are based on stabilizing rates, Caler-Bell said. "If we were to continue the way we do thi,s we wouldn't be eligible for USDA funds."

Currently the owners of properties connected to the town sewer system are paying for usage only, and the cost of capital improvements is funded by all property taxpayers. Camden's rates are the lowest of towns that replied to a 2016 survey regarding wastewater charges.

Town attorney Bill Kelly reviewed Camden's Town Charter, and has determined that "it is not only legally permissible, but unavoidable that the cost of borrowing over the next 30 years will be recaptured through service rate charges to customers..."

Camden's sewer rate, which is $5.76 per 100 cubic feet, is the lowest among a number of towns that responded to a 2016 survey regarding water charges, according to Caler-Bell. She displayed a graph that showed Camden's current and proposed rates. The proposed rates, with the increase, will be on a par with the towns of Kennebunk and York.

Caler-Bell said Camden's wastewater charges "have been a really great deal, and with the proposed increase, it will still be a good deal."

At the June 2018 town meeting, voters authorized the Select Board to bond $13.9 million for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade. At the time, Caler-Bell estimated the tax impact to be 54 cents per $1,000 of property valuation.

Much of the equipment at the treatment plant is 50 years old. Electrical and mechanical systems and components are obsolete, and parts required to repair them are no longer carried by manufacturers. The plant will be upgraded to operate more efficiently and autonomously and comply with safety codes. The project includes upgrades to the Washington Street and Norumbega Drive pump stations and replacement of a sewer main on Sea Street.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Robert B Sullivan | May 14, 2019 09:43

As someone with a septic tank, I'm thrilled to hear of this Federal requirement.

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