May 19—LEWISTON — The city will raise water rates for the first time since 2013, with the flat rate set to increase by $44 annually for most customers.
While elected officials said they were disappointed by the increase — and at least one resident spoke out against the decision — staff said the increase was unavoidable after eight years of no movement.
Finance Director Heather Hunter said Tuesday that Lewiston "has held the line on rates for a number of years now," but said with consumption remaining flat, a rate adjustment has become necessary "primarily due to capital and treatment costs."
Rates will increase by an average of 23% starting July 1. For a large majority of customers, the increase will bring the rate for the first 1,200 cubic feet per quarter from $45.60 to $57. Above average users could see increases eclipse $74 a year.
Lewiston resident Crystal Ward, who called into the virtual meeting, said the increase is "exceedingly high, and is asking a great deal of people who are currently struggling."
She said the increase is "worse than what the school district did," referring to the recently-approved school budget for fiscal 2022.
According to a memo from Public Works Director Mary Ann Brenchick, the proposed Water Division budget for next year is $6.29 million, an increase of $8o6,000 from this year. Based on existing rates, revenue was projected to reach $5.22 million, which would create an operating deficit of $226,577 for the year. In addition, she said, the projected cash deficit at the end of fiscal 2022 is projected to be $365,015.
The memo states that the rate increase would add $965,000 to revenue, offsetting the projected budget increase.
Based on the approved rates Tuesday, the minimum users of 1,200 cubic feet per quarter would have an increase of 25%, which amounts to $3.80 per month. Those using above 5,000 cubic feet would have an increase of 21.7% or $11.40 per month. The higher end users who consume in excess of 100,000 cubic feet would have an increase of about 24%.
While a majority of customers fall between the 1,200 and 10,200 cubic feet range, according to the memo, the average residential quarterly bill will jump to $85.12 from $69.20, where it has been since 2013.
The memo also shows where Lewiston rates rank among Maine's largest cities. The increase will cause Lewiston to leapfrog Auburn and Bangor, but cities like Augusta, the Kennebec Water District and the Brunswick & Topsham Water District have higher rates.
Ward told councilors that they should rethink the timing of the increase. She also argued that as a single person who uses below the minimum, she will see the largest percentage increase of anyone.
"My cost of living is ridiculous," she said. "Even when I'm under minimum, I still pay the set rate."
Councilor Luke Jensen thanked Ward for speaking up, stating, "I think a lot of people are feeling that way."
He said ideally, the council could make up for the increase with leaving property taxes flat, but that isn't an option either.
Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said, "These are tough numbers," but added, "It's important for the public to remember that we haven't raised rates in eight years, and even this isn't covering (all expenses)."
The city's tax rate is set to go up roughly $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation next year after the City Council approved the municipal and school budgets last week.
A majority of the Water Division's expenses, 40%, are for debt payments.
When asked, officials said municipal funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan could be used for future infrastructure projects that could help stabilize future rates.
Hunter said the council will hopefully discuss a list of potential projects utilizing the funds next month. She said the "greatest target" relating to the water division would be installing a second water main from Lake Auburn, which she said is a significant cost.
Once rates are approved by the City Council, they are submitted to the Public Utilities Commission and are scheduled to be implemented July 1.
The last water rate increase took place July 2013, marking a 20% hike. According to the memo, that increase was largely driven by increased capital investment for water main replacements and rehabilitation, and higher operation and maintenance costs.