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Lebanon Council Backs Rate Rises

— City Councilors last night agreed that water and sewer fees should be raised next year to pay for improvements to the city’s aging infrastucture.

When it comes to dealing with Lebanon’s long-term infrastructure issues, however, members of the City Council indicated that they would open the proverbial “toolbox” and take a fresh look at alternatives to further rate increases in subsequent years.

A proposal under consideration would see rates increase — 5 percent for water and 9 percent for sewer — for five consecutive years beginning in 2013

City Councilor Nicole Cormen said that she felt the city would be trying in vain to “catch up,” as unanticipated projects have continued to add costs to the water and sewer operations.

“I’m skeptical that continuing to do annual rate increases is defensible if we haven’t looked at the alternatives,” she said.

Cormen said the city could analyze its water and sewer systems to more accurately gauge the cost of infrastructure improvements, and then incorporate that cost into the water and sewer rates. She also mentioned the possibility of incentives that would encourage industrial users to pre-treat their wastewater.

“I’m not advocating for any one of those,” Cormen said, “But my point is we seem to have a toolbox that we haven’t explored.”

Assistant Mayor Scott Pauls agreed with Cormen and said he would second a motion to set up a City Council discussion of alternatives other than rate increases for paying for utility infrastructure.

The city still has a “vast, old infrastructure ... that frankly, we don’t know much about,” Pauls said.

The council will meet on Dec. 19 to take a final vote on next year’s rate increases.

Pauls noted the city this year will spend about $2.5 million on sewer and water improvements on Route 120 near Etna Road, as well as at the junction of Route 4 and Route 4A. He said those projects are good examples of the types of unforeseen costs that could be expected to keep cropping up in the future.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill also agreed that the Council next year should consider its options when it comes to the city’s water and sewer systems. She called the debt that the city has accumulated to pay for the combined sewer overflow project — which would separate the city’s storm water runoff drainage system from its sewer system — “an example of past decisions coming back to haunt us.”

The city had the opportunity in the 1970s to receive federal funding from the Environmental Protection Agency for the project, but officials did not act until 2000, when federal funds were no longer available.

Referring to concerns expressed by city business owners about rising rates, Cormen said that there is a balance to be struck between keeping rates reasonable for heavy water and sewer users while at the same time addressing the added stress on the infrastucture as the system serves a growing customer base.

“Maybe that will help spread the load, maybe it will trigger an earlier need for capital improvements,” she said.

Cormen also mentioned the need for the city to address “inconsistencies,” such as Lebanon businesses on Route 120 that send their wastewater to Hanover, but pay Lebanon rates, which are higher.

“This is going to drive people out of Lebanon that can’t afford to stay here, and it’s definitely affecting businesses that we want to keep, so I’m really worried about it,” she said, referring to the overall cost of water and sewer service in the city trending upward.

Last night, city councilors also discussed potentially adding to fees for ratepayers who reside in the neighboring town of Enfield.

Although the majority of infrastructure improvement projects are funded by revenue from ratepayers who use the water and sewage systems, some of the money for the projects is derived from the general fund, which is supported by the city’s property tax.

“The truth is that Lebanon still winds up with the real liability for these things,” said City Councilor Steve Wood of the cost of improving city infrastucture.

Public Works Director Mike Lavalla, prompted by a request for clarification by Liot Hill, explained that the city’s infrastructure improvements are not intended to expand capacity, but rather to upgrade outdated equipment.

He said there was a “conscious decision” not to improve capacity when the city outlined the improvement project for the wastewater facility treatment plant.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Friday, Dec. 7 edition of the Valley News:

Lebanon Public Works Director Mike Lavalla said there was a "conscious decision" not to expand the capacity of the city's wastewater treatment plant. An article printed in yesterday's edition misquoted Lavalla.

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