ROCKPORT — Armed with reports from staff, the Rockport Select Board, acting as the town’s Wastewater Commissioners, will address the issue of July wastewater bills that have distressed ratepayers, some of whom are staring down invoices three to four times what they’ve paid in the past. The Select Board will also consider mitigating the bills’ financial impact with suggestions outlined by Rockport Finance Director Megan Brackett.
“As most are now aware, we have uncovered some possible billing errors with wastewater for the second quarter of 2020,” wrote Brackett, in a memo to the Select Board, in preparation for the board’s Monday, Aug. 10, meeting. Her memo is posted below in entirety and included in the Select Board packet, which is attached as a PDF.
The wastewater bills, which are bundled with the privately-owned Maine Water Company water bills, landed in Rockport ratepayer mailboxes two weeks ago, and the response has been loud and persistent.
The increase in July bills reflects both the volumic price of wastewater generation (up 42 percent), and debt service for capital improvements (up 20 percent).
“That is a substantial rate increase, which isn’t what Rockport has generally done,” said Rick Knowlton, president of the Scarborough-based Maine Water, in a phone conversation Aug 3.
In July 2020, Rockport wastewater users were bill at $13.50 per 100 cubic feet of sewage, in July 2021, that rose to $19.25 for the same amount of sewage.
One homeowner opened a $1,600 quarterly water and wastewater bill July 29. Another received a $700 bill for the last quarter, when a year ago it was $300 for the same time period. Still another received a $425 quarterly sewer bill when the total had previously been $225.
“It is our hope that we will be able to reduce sewer rates in the coming year, hopefully by then we will have been able to determine where the inflow problem is and it will be corrected, we also ask that all homeowners and businesses do what they can to resolve this issue,” said Brackett. “If you know you have a roof drain or sump pump, or other items connected to the system that should not be there, please remove it and find another way to discharge the water.”
See below for her complete memo (also included in the attached Select Board packet).
There are approximately 641 residential and commercial customers of the wastewater system, and use Maine Water as their water source. The rest of Rockport residents have their own septic and well systems.
Town Manager William Post said Aug. 10: We have reviewed 41 accounts. There are 641 users on the system and 117 of those have had than normal usage amounts.”
Brackett is offering the Select Board/Wastewater Commissioners mitigation proposals, including reducing, “the usage rate from $19.25 per unit to $18.10 per unit. This would make a difference for an average single-family user of about $8.05 per quarter or $32.20 for the year.”
Her proposals follow:
“Proposed Changes to the Budget
“Debt Service Fee Related Changes
“1. There is a line in the Capital Improvement Plan for the lease payment of another vehicle for wastewater, as we now have two people contracted to maintain our system, and currently only have one vehicle. This could be removed for this year as Woodward and Curran will need to hire another person, as one of the two we have has moved onto another job. The total of this would be $16,000.
“2. We could reduce the reserve deposit for the Camden Treatment Plant upgrades to $62,000 from $72,000, this would be a savings of $10,000. This $10,000 savings however would need to be made up in the coming year. We have been told that Camden plans to bid out the treatment plant project this fall with work to start next year.
“With these two suggested changes, and keeping the use of the Capital Reserve at $104,000, we could reduce the debt service fee from $74.03 to $68.58, which would be a decrease of $5.45 per equivalent user per quarter, or a yearly total of $21.80.
“Usage Rate Related Changes
“1. We can remove the monthly billing from the Administration budget and go back to quarterly billing. Maine Water is not currently prepared to accommodate monthly billing. This would be a reduction of $17,000.
“2. We can reduce the Camden Treatment Plant billing amount. We currently have $353,272 in this line. Over the past five quarters we have sent Camden an average of 10,612 units of wastewater to be treated per quarter. This would mean that on average we would send them 42,448 units of wastewater in course of the year. At Camden’s current usage rate of $7.46 per unit, that would equate to $316,662.08 in the fiscal year. I would recommend that this budget amount could be reduced to $325,000, a savings of $28,272. I would not recommend going less then this as usage overall is higher for the first quarter of this year because of people being home more.
“3. We do not have new rates from Rockland yet, but last year we spent $148,205.45 to treat what we sent to them. Figuring a 10% increase between usage and rate adjustments, that would mean we would spend about $163,025.99. We currently have budgeted $163,461.
“With the changes I have outlined above, we could reduce the usage rate from $19.25 per unit to $18.10 per unit. This would make a difference for an average single-family user of about $8.05 per quarter or $32.20 for the year.
“The changes proposed between the debt service fee and the usage charges would have a combined quarterly savings of $13.50, for a single user family, and a yearly savings of $54.00 over the current rates.”
“Other Items to Consider
“1. As a result of COIV-19 Maine Water did not read actual meters in April to determine that quarters usage. Instead they came up with an average usage amount and billed users that amount, about one third of our users saw no change at all; I can correlate those users to ones that either have digital meters or they are not connected to public water so their bills are estimated anyway and they are charged the same amount each quarter.
“One third of the users had over estimations for the April billing, which means they were billed for more than they actually used. The other third of users are the ones that saw huge increases in their July bill. I do believe that it would be fair to bill those users that were under charged in April at the prior rate of $13.50. My recommendation would be to do this for all accounts that were underestimated in the month of April. This would be a total cost savings for those accounts of $12,652.88.”
Reasons for increase are across the board
According to Brackett, the reasons for Rockport’s increase in both debt service (for capital improvements to the wastewater system) and usage fees are many and varied. Rockport is anticipating a rate hike from Rockland (which takes waste from the Glen Cove and Samoset condominiums) and Camden, for its major wastewater treatment facility overhaul.
Brackett all cited increasing nonpayment of sewer system bills.
“We are processing more lines for nonpayment of sewer bills,” she wrote in her memo (see below). “This means that we have more residents that are not paying their sewer bills and our only recourse is to start the lien process on those accounts that are more than 90 days past due.”
The usage rate of each wastewater customer, as Brackett explained, goes like this: Users receive quarterly sewer bills from Maine Water, and the sewer usage is based on the amount of water that is brought into a home. Maine Water meters the water intake, “and we assume what goes in must come out, which is the standard practice,” she wrote.
“ If you live in a house that is not connected to public water, then Maine Water has a way to estimate your usage based on the number of people living in the house and the size of the house. Once your usage has been determined then we apply the usage rate to that amount. For example, say your normal usage is 14 units a quarter, this would equate to a charge of $269.50 for the quarter (14 units multiplied by the usage rate of $19.25 per unit), or $89.83 a month.”
Maine Water has recorded an increase of water usage since April, attributes the increase to its own set of assessments.
Some of it is irrigation, because of drought conditions and a warm summer, the company has said.
Water customers do have control over monitoring their personal irrigation usage by installing submeters to their household monitoring system. Those meters are installed by plumbers at the homeowner’s expense, and then it is the homeowner’s responsibility to track the irrigation meter usage, which is then submitted to Maine Water.
The customer installing the submeter must let Scott Bickford, Rockport’s code enforcement officer, know about the installation in order to get it inspected.
The two big drivers in the wastewater bill increase, said Rick Knowlton, Maine Water president, include Rockport’s substantial rate increase as of July 1, as well as the effects of a warm summer.
“We’ve seen residential water usage go up across the state,” said Knowlton. He cited a 16 percent increase in water usage amongst Maine Water customers across Maine. Maine Water serves 32,000 customers in southern and Midcoast Maine, and inland to Fryeburg and Skowhegan.
And while residential water use increased during the months of the pandemic, when people were sequestered at home, the non-residential use, “is way down,” he said.
While customers were billed at the new rate, they also had used more water, said Knowlton.
There are, according to Maine Water, two dozen customers who water usage is up considerably more than the same quarter last year.
Knowlton attributed that to more lawn watering, and new swimming pools and hot tubs.
“People have been creating ways to enjoy their homes than in the past,” he said.
Pam Blackman, Maine Water Customer Service Manager, who oversees the Maine Water call center that receives the complaints about billing, added sprinklers, leaking toilets, and more home water usage, in general, with the pandemic.
Blackman said she was in close contact with Brackett over the past weeks to determine which customer bills required Maine Water investigation into questionable over-usage of water.
There were, said Blackman, eight customers in the Rockport wastewater billing system, that required a closer look at water consumption.
“She [Brackett] gave me a list of customers to review,” said Blackman.
Typically, a home uses 100 to 150 gallons a day of water, said Knowlton.
A leaking toilet alone can draw 1,000 gallons a day, he said.
By Megan Brackett, Finance Director
As most are now aware, we have uncovered some possible billing errors with wastewater for the 2nd quarter of 2020. We are working diligently with customers and Maine Water to determine what the issues are and are examining each account. Meanwhile, there are some key points that I would like to discuss so that there is a better understanding of the wastewater system, how our rates are established, and how the billing cycle works.
The History of the System
In the 1980’s, the Town of Rockport addressed a serious environmental issue. Many homes and businesses were discharging their sewage directly into the Penobscot Bay, both into Rockport Harbor and Clam Cove. Under State and Federal mandates, the Town constructed a wastewater collection system (the sewer) in two parts; one to service Rockport Village and surrounding areas, and another to service the Glen Cove portion of Town. Agreements were secured with Camden (for the Village system) and Rockland (for the Glen Cove system) to send the collected wastewater to their treatment plants, which meant that Rockport did not have to construct its own treatment plant.
The construction of the two separate systems was financed with a combination of State and Federal grants and by borrowing money through bonds that were to be paid back over several years by the users of the wastewater systems. Since the original construction of the system, we have increased the number of road miles that is serviced by the system. Extensions to the original system to serve Camden Hills Regional High School and properties along Commercial Street (Route 1) from West St. (Route 90) south to Elwood Avenue were constructed between 1988 and 1989 funded in part by a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) established for that purpose. As the Comprehensive Plan was developed in 2003- 2004, the issue of expanding the wastewater system was addressed. One of the highest priorities noted in the Comprehensive Plan is the linking of the two wastewater systems by extending the sewer system along Commercial Street from Elwood Ave (the southern terminus of the “Village” system) to South Street (the northern terminus of the Glen Cove system).
In the summer of 2014, the Wastewater Commissioners undertook engineering and feasibility studies for one section of this area, from Elwood Avenue to Sea Light Lane.
In 2019 the voters of Rockport approved a 4.5 million-dollar bond that will be used to continue the system and finish the connection between the Southern and Northern ends. This extension is now known as the Sea Light Lane to South Street extension. Much of this project will be funded using TIF revenues and State and Federal grant money. Our current plan is to send this project out to bid this fall and start construction next spring.
The additional construction that the Town undertook has two major components to it that benefit the Town as a whole. The first being that access to public sewer and public water have proven to increase development in the areas in which it is available, the more development we have in Town, the more value there is to spread the tax commitment to, thus potentially lowering your property tax bills. The second major component is that it allowed property owners of failing septic systems the option to discharge their waste by connecting to the public system and avoiding a huge expense on their part to construct a new septic system.
How Rates are Established
The Debt Service Fee - February of each year the Finance Director and Woodard and Curran Engineers and system maintenance crew meet and update the capital improvement plan for the system. The plan includes items ranging from pump replacements at our pump stations, to placing motorized cameras in the pipes to check for cracks or leaks, to replacing full pump stations. These are very important steps, as we want to make sure that we are maintaining the system the best way we can so that we do not end up with costly breakdowns or repairs. Once we have come up with a list of the things we would like to get done, this is condensed down to what we can afford to do, and what has to be done before we have issues with the system. We also know that the Camden Treatment Plant needs some very costly repairs and upgrades, and we are responsible for a portion of those upgrades. A few years ago, we established a reserve account and have been setting aside a portion of what we believe will be our annual debt payment to Camden for these upgrades. We did this to help lessen the burden on the sewer users in the future with a drastic increase in the debt service fee to cover the cost of this upgrade; instead we have been able to save money for this purpose alone and increase the debt service fee slightly each year to cover this increase.
Once we have finalized the capital improvement plan, we then determine what the debt service fee will be for the new year. The debt service fee is figured by looking at the total estimated cost of our above and below ground capital maintenance, add in any debt payments that have to be made that year, and subtract the budgeted use of the Capital Reserve.
In the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 wastewater budget we have allocated $279,000 to above ground capital maintenance, $75,000 to below ground capital maintenance and an annual capital reserve deposit of $40,000, for a total capital investment of $394,000. We also budgeted using $104,000 from the Capital Reserve, making the net amount billed to users $290,000. This $290,000 investment is then divided equally to all users of the system, and anyone that owns property where sewer is located but has not connected to the system. We also have $276,142 due in principal and interest payment on current debt that is due by the system, of this amount $212,591 is funded by TIF revenues, which leaves the net amount $63,551. We currently have 1,194 equivalent users of the system, which means each equivalent user is being charged $296.11 per year or $74.03 per quarter. This is an increase of $12.24 per quarter over last year (ending June 30, 2020).
The Usage Rate – The usage rate is comprised of all other operating expenses not listed above, including contracted services to maintain the system, treatment expenses from the Town of Camden and City of Rockland, administrative services for billing, record keeping and lien processing, as well as additional Town of Rockport staff time to conduct other wastewater related business. Your usage is directly correlated to how much water you bring into your house. We do not have separate meters for the outgoing wastewater, so we rely on Maine Water’s meters for the incoming water, which is the standard practice. If you do not have access to public water, but you use the public wastewater system, Maine Water will estimate your usage based on your house and family size and you are charged an estimated usage amount. If you have outside water faucets that you use a lot for watering, or filling your pool, you can purchase a meter to attach to that faucet and call in your meter readings to Maine Water for a credit on that usage, as that water is not returning to our wastewater system to be treated. If you are interested in this, you should reach out to Scott Bickford, Code Enforcement Officer at the Town Office.
If you are not on Maine Water for public water, and connected to the public wastewater system, your current wastewater bills is estimated based on a formula in the sewer ordinance. Depending on your living situation, this might result in an overcharge of what you are using. The only way that we have to correct this and get a more accurate reading is for you to install a meter on your well, it would be the same type of meter discussed above. You be responsible for calling Maine Water with the actual readings from the meter, but you would only be charged for what you are sending through the system. If this is something that you are interested in, please reach out to Code Enforcement Officer Scott Bickford and he can help you with this process.
Some major changes that effected this year’s usage rates are as follows:
1. There is an inflow/infiltration problem somewhere in the system, this could be from users connecting sump pumps and/or roof drains to the system. This is a problem because this additional water is not metered, and we have no way of billing customers for this. Last summer the Town spent a significant amount of time and resources trying to locate the sources of additional inflow. We may also have a crack in an inground pipe that we are not aware of, which is why we are dedicating resources to sending motorized cameras through the pipes. We are certain this is a problem because we are being billed from Camden and Rockland for more waste then what we are billing.
2. We are projecting increases from the City of Rockland and Town of Camden for the costs associated in treating Rockport’s Wastewater. It has been asked of us many times why our usage rate is not low like Camden’s? This answer is twofold, one being that Camden is charging us the same usage rate as their customers are being charged, which is reasonable as it is costing them the same amount to treat Rockport’s waste as it is theirs; and Camden has 1,880 users (not including the Town of Rockport users) and Rockport has 1,194 users. This means that there are more users to split the costs. On the other side, Rockland has 4,600 users on their system, a difference of 3,406 users. Another driving factor for keeping Camden usage rates low is that in the past, per Camden’s Town Charter, the entire tax base paid for sewer projects instead of just the users of the system. Camden has a minimum quarterly bill which is currently $74.60 a quarter. To put it into prospective, that is just slightly more than our current debt service payment.
3. We are processing more lines for nonpayment of sewer bills. This means that we have more residents that are not paying their sewer bills and our only recourse is to start the lien process on those accounts that are more than 90 days past due.
How the Billing Works
Users receive quarterly sewer bills from Maine Water, and your sewer usage is based on the amount of water that is brought into your home. Maine Water has a meter on the incoming water, and we assume what goes in must come out, which is the standard practice. If you live in a house that is not connected to public water, then Maine Water has a way to estimate your usage based on the number of people living in the house and the size of the house. Once your usage has been determined then we apply the usage rate to that amount. For example, say your normal usage is 14 units a quarter, this would equate to a charge of $269.50 for the quarter (14 units multiplied by the usage rate of $19.25 per unit), or $89.83 a month.
Also included in your quarterly bill is the debt service fee, this fee is based on how many equivalent user(s) you have assessed to your home or business. The number of equivalent users is determined by the Code Enforcement Officer when you get the permit to connect to the sewer system. The current rate is $74.03 per quarter per equivalent user.
It is our hope that we will be able to reduce sewer rates in the coming year, hopefully by then we will have been able to determine where the inflow problem is and it will be corrected, we also ask that all homeowners and businesses do what they can to resolve this issue. If you know you have a roof drain or sump pump, or other items connected to the system that should not be there, please remove it and find another way to discharge the water.
All wastewater items, including approving and adopting the annual wastewater budget are discussed at open Select Board Meetings (acting as Wastewater Commissioners).
If you have additional questions please feel free to email Megan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 207-230-0180 x6.