Water Rates Would More Than Double In Next Decade To Fund Sewer Upgrade
April 7, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
Opponents are unlatching their holsters for a political shootout over legislation that could empower the Metropolitan District Commission to, over the next decade, more than double the cost of the water it sells.
In a fight that will take place in the General Assembly's back alleys, some legislators already have discharged a few early political rounds to protect their constituents.
The proposal would authorize the MDC to pay for a $1.6 billion sewer upgrade project by adding a surcharge to the bills of its water users. During about 50 heavy rains a year, untreated sewage overflows into the Hartford region's rivers, the city's streets and people's basements from pipes that are too old and too small to handle the extra volume.
But communities that use MDC water - not its sewers - say an extra charge on their water bills to fix something they don't use is grossly unjust.
The MDC has eight member towns that get both sewer and water services - Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Windsor and Bloomfield. But it also sells only water service to nonmember towns - Farmington, South Windsor, Glastonbury, East Granby and Portland.
State Rep. Tom Kehoe, D-Glastonbury, said he plans to fight the legislation and anticipates those who represent other towns that buy water from the MDC will join him.
"This bill strikes me as very unfair," Kehoe said.
Over the next 10 years, the increases would boost the typical residential customer's annual bill from $196 to $471, officials said, not including inflation.
Of the MDC's approximately 101,000 water accounts, Glastonbury has the highest number among nonmember towns, with 5,953; South Windsor is next, with 2,783; then East Granby, 490. Portland and Farmington are considered single accounts by the MDC because the towns buy water under a bulk contract and redistribute it to property owners.
William DiBella, the chairman of the MDC's 29-member board, said he understands nonmember towns' objections to the surcharge. But pollution caused by waste entering the Connecticut River is everyone's problem, he said.
And, DiBella said, towns that buy the MDC's water benefit from a massive investment by the district's member towns over the past 75 years to cultivate its source of clean, very inexpensive water. Now they want a return on that investment.
"We invested an enormous amount of money to create our water system, and now we are asking to take some of that equity out and put it toward our sewer system," he said. "Why should the MDC's members be denied the ability to mark that water up?"
"I don't think we are being unfair on how we are parceling this out," he said. "We are not gouging anyone. Everyone is paying the same price, including the district's member towns."
MDC water customers, including those in member towns, pay $1.96 per 100 cubic feet of water, officials said. The new water charges would cause that figure to more than double within the next 10 years. The fee would be added in increments of 30 cents per 100 cubic feet, per year, for the first five years. Then increments of 25 cents per 100 cubic feet every year for the next five years.
In the next 10 years, that means a $2.75 increase.
The overflow from sewers pollutes the Connecticut River, tributaries and Wethersfield Cove. The state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have ordered the MDC to fix the problem.
Voters approved a referendum proposal for $800 million, the first installment of the $1.6 billion project. Additional referendums are anticipated to raise the rest.
But to help pay for the massive cost, the MDC wants to change its charter to allow what it calls a "clean water surcharge."
The General Assembly's planning and economic development committee approved the legislation last week and sent it for further review by the finance committee. State Rep. Art Feltman, co-chairman of the planning and economic development committee, said the entire region is responsible for solving this environmental and public health crisis.
"An ecosystem knows no jurisdiction," he said.
But state Rep. Bill Aman, R-South Windsor, voted in the minority against the proposed legislation before it wassent along. He said he is still trying to work out a solution with those who favor the bill, to tweak the language and limit the surcharge to those customers who get both sewer and water.
Both Aman and Kehoe said their towns are already paying millions to clean the environment by upgrading their own sewer treatment plants - about $14 million in South Windsor and $28 million in Glastonbury. Neither lawmaker sees why his constituents should be hit twice for the same purpose.
"I think it is very unfair to these particular residents," Aman said. "By this logic, why doesn't Greenwich come to South Windsor and ask us to pay for their sewer upgrades too? After all, waste ends up in Long Island Sound."
Portland, which buys water from the MDC, has already solved its dilemma.
In 1998, Portland signed a 30-year contract with the MDC, locking in rates throughout the life of the contract to buy water in bulk for nearly 5,000 homes. The town has its own sewers and treatment plant.
When word came out about a possible surcharge on people's MDC water bills, state Sen. Eileen M. Daily, who represents Portland, called DiBella and asked that he review the contract. DiBella said he assured her that Portland was protected.
"We don't believe we would have the right, or that the legislature would, to override that contract," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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