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Lebanon City Council Approves Water and Sewer Rate Increases and 2013 Budget

Lebanon — City Councilors unanimously approved rate increases for water and sewer fees last night, along with a $46.6 million spending plan for 2013 that will eliminate jobs in multiple city departments.

“I find myself unsettled about supporting this budget, but I will support it,” said City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss, who expressed particular concern over cutting jobs in the Human Services and Fire departments — both of which she said have seen an uptick in demand in the past year.

Even with the cuts, the budget will necessitate a projected 2 percent increase in the municipal property tax rate, which would add about $47.50 to the tax bill of a property assessed at $250,000. The current rate is $9.25 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The water and sewer rate increases — 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively — are estimated to add about $120 to the average annual bill for a four-person household.

The rate increases for water and sewer fees represent the first year in a five-year plan that would raise rates by similar percentages each year. If all five years of increases are ultimately approved, they would add about $600 dollars to the bill of an average four-person household over that time period.

Among city departments, Public Works would see the biggest cut — $117,120 in wages and $39,380 in benefits for department employees. Some of those saving would be used to create a new position, deputy director of Public Works, who would include compensation of $80,260 and more than $30,000 in benefits.

In her comments on the budget proposal, Prentiss mentioned that position specifically, describing it as a “pilot project” that she supported only with the stipulation that staffing levels for other departments are kept steady in the coming years.

City Manager Greg Lewis has said that he requested the position to facilitate better organization and oversight in the department, which is tasked with the challenge of rehabbing the city’s aging infrastructure .

The budget cuts $61,420 from the Human Services department, which will see the elimination of a part-time position as well as a reduction in the vendor payments for direct assistance to low-income residents for items as fuel, utility, rent and medical bills. The budget also left funding to nonprofit agencies — which faced a 10 percent cut last year — at those reduced levels.

In the city’s Fire Department, about $46,000 was cut from administrative wages, which is likely to lead to the elimination of a position there.

Two members of the public spoke in opposition to the water and sewer rate increases, though no one spoke in opposition to the overall budget proposal.

Resident Mark Farnum objected to the fact that revenue from sewer rate increases would be used to pay for capital improvements, such as the combined sewer overflow separation project, which carries with it a $56 million price tag.

Farnum said that those improvements should instead come from the general fund, which is supported by the municipal property tax, to lessen the burden on ratepayers. He asked the Council to recalculate their water and sewer rate proposal not to include the cost of infrastructure improvements.

“Singling out the ratepayer to pay any of the capital costs of the separation project does not meet the proportional tax test,” he said.

According to Finance Director Len Jarvi, sewer infrastructure projects are funded using a formula that takes 40 percent from the general fund, along with 30 percent from the sewer enterprise fund and 30 percent from the water enterprise fund.

Assistant Mayor Scott Pauls said he found that split to be a “at least a roughly reasonable one,” but councilors Karen Liot Hill and Erling Heistad said that the formula was worth discussing next year, and both indicated that they might support tweaking the formula to rely more heavily on the general fund.

Resident Judy Ryder, also spoke in opposition to the rates. She said her water and sewer bill was about $56 dollars in 2005 and totaled more than $300 in her last billing cycle.

“Nothing has had as much impact on my cost of living as (the water and sewer rates),” said Ryder.

City Councilor Nicole Cormen said that the rate increases are necessitated by past decisions by previous city council, who did not keep pace with the amount of revenue required to maintain the city’s water and sewer systems, and the mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency to make progress on the massive separation project.

“We have this happening at the same time that the water system is starting to spring leaks,” said Cormen, who described the city’s water system as old clay pipes.

City Councilor Bruce Bronner called the rate increases a “tough pill to swallow.”

“We’re dealing with a system that’s over 100 years old in some cases and has not been maintained in the way it should be,” he said. “This council does not want to raise peoples’ rates, but we really have no choice.”

The council passed three amendments to the budget last night, deleting some capital improvement projects that were scheduled to be paid for mostly by an airport fee. Finance Director Jarvi said that the city is examining other ways to pay for the projects.

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