Water & Sewer Bills Will Rise Over 8%, Council Grudgingly Approves Rates

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Watertown residents will see their water and sewer bills increases by more than 8 percent with the approval of the Fiscal Year 2021 water and sewer rates by the Town Council on Tuesday night.

The Council voted 8-1 to approve the rates, with Lisa Feltner voting “no.” All the councilors expressed concern and/or disappointment about the rate hike. Some asked for ways to give some relief, or even to create a fund for those who have trouble paying their bills, but nothing emerged from Tuesday’s meeting.

Watertown’s Water and Sewer budgets pay for the expenses of running the systems through the money collected from customers. Council President Mark Sideris noted that the past a few years have seen small increases in water and sewer rates (2.5 percent combined in FY19, 4 percent in FY20), or even no increase in FY18. The consequences of the small increases may have caught up with the Town, Sideris said, and now the Town faces an 8.6 percent increase.

Town Auditor Tom Tracy said that revenues are not keeping up with the increased expenses.

“Revenue concerns in Fiscal ’19 and ’20 due to consumption not meeting projections is the major reason for shortfalls, which is why brought in the consultant,” Tracy said. “The current water and sewer rates are not sufficient to raise enough money for water sewer systems.” 

Three options were created by the consultant hired by the Town, Tracy said. All three had increases to not only pay for the water and sewer operations, but also to build up retained earnings of 15 percent of the operation costs as a reserve fund.

The plan calls for having significant increases in the following four years, too, (nearly 8 percent each year), but Tracy said officials will look at changing the water rate tiers so that residents don’t feel as large a hike in future years.

Increasing rates during a pandemic when many people are out of work did not sit well with Councilor Lisa Feltner.

“I am really disappointed. I have strong misgivings voting for the rates,” Feltner said. “Once we vote it in I am concerned about the inflexibility we have.”

Councilor Caroline Bays asked if Option 1 was the best, considering the increase for most residents would be 6.5 percent under year one in Option 3.

Councilor Tony Palomba said that he wanted to find a way to help people handle this year’s increase.

“I do feel this is a real nut for people to swallow in terms of rate increase,” Palomba said.

The Town does not have a special program to give relief for water and sewer bills, Tracy said. He added that he remembers a state program that had been available years ago, but he is not sure if it is still operating.

Palomba asked if the Town could used reserves from the town’s general fund to help people struggling to pay their bills. Town Attorney Mark Reich said paying individual water bills may be against the state’s Anti Aid Amendment, which prevents public funds from being used for private purposes.

“Funds are limited to reducing rates across the board or making investments in the system,” Reich said. “The potential use of public funds for rate relief, … to essentially subsidize individual residents, runs the risk of running afoul of the Anti Aid amendment.”

Council President Mark Sideris said the discussions about the rate increases and the tiers will be discussed at by Council subcommittees.

“We have to move forward. I am looking forward to very robust discussion on rate increases,” Sideris said. “It is going to be a challenge. Given all that was said tonight with the pandemic and people don’t have jobs, these are all concerns. We need to do what we can to alleviate them as best we can.” 

Councilor Anthony Donato suggested that if the Town gets more state aid than originally budgeted, that some of the extra funds be used to reduce the rate increase. The State Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced a commitment not to cut local aid and school aid below the amount provided in FY20.

The rate increase will appear on the first bills of FY21, Tracy said, which will be reflected on bills that come out in the late summer or early fall.

14 thoughts on “Water & Sewer Bills Will Rise Over 8%, Council Grudgingly Approves Rates

  1. With the dry summer that we’ve had, many people are using more water to maintain their lawns, bushes, flowers, and trees. It seems as if we will all be hit with a MUCH bigger bill due to increased consumption and increased rates. The timing for a big rate increase is not good. If the increase was in the following billing cycle, it perhaps wouldn’t be as bad.

    • it looks like there’s a way to sign up to pay for irrigation water that doesn’t charge the sewer charge for water used in gardens, is that correct? If so, how do we sign up for that? Charlie do you know how we can do that?

      • You need to have a sprinkler system installed then a plumber to install a new meter. Not sure if they let you install your own sprinkler system which is not ez to do. I am guessing $2500-3000 total cost.
        You can also split up your tenant apt if you owe a 2 fam house.

  2. This is not fair, especially to owners of multiple unit housing. We can not even rent the apartments we have.
    I feel this is because Watertown estimated water usage from all the apartments and condos that Watertown allowed contractors to build. And most of them have empty condos and apartments. Because of empty housing the estimated usage is not what was expected. So as always Watertown has pushed it onto the home owners who are struggling to keep there multiple unit house going.
    Then on top of that they hired a consultant team to determine how much to raise the rate. Watertown always hirer consultant firms to give a solution to the problem. This is a waist of money. Why can’t Watertown set their own rules instead of spending money.

  3. I’m only using it now for showers, dishes and toilet. I may have to give up one of these soon.
    It’s not like we have a shortage of water.
    There is something wrong if it is getting more expensive to use water because we use less.
    The investment that have been made should be having a savings effect.
    If we use less water and your going to charge us more, then you have not done your job of looking out for us.
    Charging more for using less is not a reasonable plan for responsible leaders to have.
    It might be time for small blocks of houses to look into having wells put in if you can’t plan for proper town wide water management.

  4. Hello with all do respect this article made me very sad to see the state we are in.I would like to make a few points. It would have been nice if the residents of Watertown knew exactly what the 3 options were that the councilors were considering to choose. This should have been discussed well before the vote to increase the water and sewer bills 8.6%. Once again lack of planning, lack of informing and not including Watertown citizens to get their feedback on important financial decisions, is vital in our economic crisis.

    Perhaps instead of hiring so many additional consultants that obviously are not helping when you are voting an 8.6% increase. How much money has been spent over the past 4 years for all of the consultants that Watertown has hired?
    Transparency is key perhaps so many poor decisions would not have been made!

    What about all the revenue that is being received from all of the new developments throughout Watertown? How much is Watertown receiving from all these developments, including Arsenal Yards? Transparency!

    Secondly, Auditor Mr. Tracy stated”we are not meeting the projections”since you think this is the major reason for shortfalls as Town Auditor you should have researched why.You were not prepared to answer if we still have a relief program that was available before either. We wait until now when we are in an economic crisis to be planning. Shame on all of you officials.

    Also, not prepared Attorney Mark Reich stated “it may be against States Aid Amendment “ why was this not researched?

    Town Manager Driscoll where are you in all these decisions? You are the Town Manager didn’t you refer my other Freedom of Information Act questions to Attorney Mark Reich that passed it onto someone else and it still has not been answered.

    As for Town Council President Sideris he states”We have to move forward”.
    I disagree I think we have to look back and review all the costly mistakes being made. Waiting to build all of our Old schools at the same time, instead of staggering them over the past years. Over ride taxes needed to build a new High school, water and sewer taxes in just one year raise 8.6%. No room in Watertown to build schools.
    This Town President has failed Watertown and thinks he can fill a seat at the State level.

    How much money is Watertown receiving from all these developments, including Arsenal Yards?

    I have a vote of no confidence in our town officials and think we should think back, instead of forgetting what we had in Watertown,
    before we move forward.

    Hoping for citizens inclusions in these decisions being made.

    Mary Russo

  5. Many costs of running a water system are fixed costs. So if consumption goes down, as the article indicated, rates are going to go up. The only way to really bring down costs is to spread it over more customers, which means growth.

  6. These ridiculously high increases of water will affect everyone living in Watertown. Whether you own or rent. Yes. Renters get ready to see the increase as well.

  7. We need a Town Manager that looks out for the residents of Watertown, were is all the money going? The Town Manager position should be an elected position by the residents of Watertown. At the rate we are going Watertown will be the next Cambridge or Belmont where residents can’t afford to live in their town any longer.

  8. Does anyone know when the town citizens can vote to change our form of government? It’s time we have a mayor instead of council. Someone needs to actually lead and take responsibility for the decisions made.

    • There is no set time when the town votes on the type of government. There would have to be a change to the Home Rule Charter, which I believe citizens can start by collecting signatures. The Town Clerk’s office would know about the procedure.

  9. Ok…so what do we do going forward? What can we do?
    I agree, changes need to me made.
    Transparency is very important. Where is it?

    As mentioned, there is so much new development,
    where is the revenue from that? Building so many new schools at the same time?

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