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Lebanon OKs Higher Sewer Rates

Lebanon — Describing themselves as “reluctant,” city councilors on Wednesday approved a 9 percent increase in the municipal sewer rate for the second year in a row, though more than one said they would not vote for another increase next year without first rethinking the city’s utility rate structure.

The rate increase will add about $24 to an average consumer’s sewer bill, bringing the cost of sewer service for that user to about $285 annually. City officials have estimated that similar increases will be needed every year through 2017 to bring the city’s sewer fund into a better fiscal standing.

Two Lebanon residents spoke in opposition to the sewer rate increase, including former city councilor Dominic Balestra, who said the city should consider fees other than charging solely based on consumption as it does currently.

Balestra also suggested taxing those who utilize more than the median amount of water and sewer services as a way to protect lower-income households who use less than that amount.

“That would protect the low-end users and the young families in Lebanon from exorbitant annual increases in the sewer rate and would protect the elderly who have lived in their homes their whole lives,” said Balestra. “And the high-end users like hotels going in on (Route) 120 would pay more because they would be high-end users.”

Raymond Downs expressed similar concerns about the city’s vulnerable residents.

“At some point, you’re going to tax residents that own homes out of the city,” Downs said.

Much of the council’s deliberation centered on the notion that revised water and sewer user fees for Lebanon’s 2,800 sewer accounts should be brought before the council before a similar rate increase is considered next year.

Assistant Mayor Steve Wood said the way the city charges for water and sewer service must be revisited.

“I don’t pay for this,” Wood said. “I’ve got a well, I’ve got a septic tank, but this does benefit me as a citizen of Lebanon. We’ve got to figure out a way to pay for this more broadly and not just hammer the people who are using water and sewer, but we’re not there yet, and we need to pay the piper.”

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill was the sole “no” vote on Wednesday night. She said she was voting against the rate increase because of the lack of a corollary water rate increase, and contended that the city must do better job of stabilizing and smoothing the rates.

“I feel that we are just setting ourselves up for future spikes, and I just cannot support that,” said Liot Hill. “It is not a comfortable position for me to be voting against this, and I think ironically I’m voting against it because I think the rate increase is insufficient. ... I find myself in an untenable position.”

City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss described herself as “incredibly reluctant” to vote for the rate increase, and reiterated other councilors’ requests that a revised rate structure be brought forward next year.

“We need a proposal to act on,” Prentiss said. “We can continue to hear from consultants and continue to hear what we should do, but the administration needs to bring forward a proposal.”

The city’s sewer fund has been increasingly utilized to pay off debt for infrastructure projects, most notably for “combined sewer overflow” projects — or CSOs — which separate sewer and stormwater systems to avoid untreated discharges into the Connecticut and Mascoma rivers that could conflict with federal law.

The city has been under an Environmental Protection Agency mandate since 2000 to address the combined sewer overflows, and has spent about $43 million on the projects since then. Officials hope to complete the overhaul of city systems by the end of the decade.

More than a quarter of the city’s 2013 sewer budget went toward paying off debt. The Finance Department’s projections indicate that debt payments will consume a third of the budget in 2015, and nearly half of the budget in 2016 through 2019. Finance Director Len Jarvi has said that he anticipates increases in the sewer rate of at least 9 percent for the next several years as the city tries to pay off its infrastructure-related debt.

Aside from CSO spending, about $4 million will be spent on sewer work at the intersection of Etna Road and Route 120 and nearly $11 million will be spent on wastewater treatment facility improvements in upcoming years. Those figures factor into more than $28 million of debt that has been authorized by the City Council. Of that total, about $7 million will be supported by property taxes, about $4.6 million through the water fund, and about $16.7 million through the sewer fund.

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