Town staff is ‘getting to the bottom of it,’ per Select Board Chairwoman

Rockport residents aghast at 50 to 300 percent increase in wastewater bills

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 2:30pm

ROCKPORT — One Rockport Village 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. Another resident reported that he was charged $19.25 per 100 cubic feet of sewage, while Camden resident are getting charged $6.23 per cubic foot. Still another received a $425 quarterly sewer bill when the total is usually $225.

The Rockport Town Office has been inundated with calls from outraged and concerned ratepayers, and staff have been trying to rationalize the increase: Intrusion of water into the system from unmonitored sources, too much garden watering, running toilets, leaky sinks, staying at home during a pandemic and using the facilities more.

But few are buying what has been posed as reasons. “Something is afoot!” wrote one person in a neighborhood group text. “Email the Select Board!” another wrote.

The town has listened and today staff at the town office are hovering over the books.

“The Town staff obtained a print out of all the billed amounts and is doing an analysis and speaking with Maine Water,” said Rockport Select Board Chairwoman Debra Hall. “We are definitely making this our number one priority issue for Town staff and doing everything we can to quickly and accurately get to the bottom of it.”

While Town Manager William Post issued a release yesterday afternoon, July 29, trying to explain for the bill increases, today, July 30, he is acknowledging problems.

“....based on what I am seeing, there are definitely some issues with some of the wastewater bills for the most recent quarter that are not a part of the general rate increase,” he said. “The amount of usage in several cases is off. As Debra said, staff are working with Maine Water to determine what the issue is. When we have a good understanding of the issue, we will let everyone know.”

Billing for wastewater charges is provided by the Maine Water Company. Financial records are then forwarded to the finance director for review, and financial records are updated and maintained by the town. The finance director, along with the town manager, are responsible for tracking accounts and implementing the lien process whenever necessary, for unpaid fees.

The Select Board acts as the Wastewater Commissioners and oversee the wastewater budget, which is an enterprise fund and not part of the town’s general fund budget. In governmental accounting, an Enterprise Fund provides goods or services to the public for a fee that makes the entity self-supporting.

The wastewater budget for 2021 is $1.7 million, up from $1.5 million in 2020. 

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 Post wrote in the 2021 wastewater budget memo: 

“This past year we were able to complete needed upgrades to the Sea Street pump station, purchased a new pump at Fox Fridge, replaced the generator at the Harbor View pump station, started a reserve account to purchase a new automatic radio system, continued funding for ongoing ability to camera the system and continued to prepare for the needed upgrades at the Camden Treatment Plant.

“Administrative costs are higher this year, we have had changes in staff which has resulted in wage and benefits increases, and we are processing sewer liens more often which results in more time spent from the Finance Office. We are also working with Maine Water to bill all users monthly instead of quarterly, which will increase our costs, but should help us reduce our aging receivables.

“Operation costs are up about 18%, the biggest factor here is what we are being charged by Camden and Rockland to treat our waste. We are also increasing this number slightly because we do have an inflow problem, but we have not been able to locate where it is coming from. We will continue to camera the system to see if we can locate the problem.”

Debra Hall wasted no time in addressing the complaints that have poured into the town office as of this week. She responded on Post’s release: “The Rockport Select Board received a number of emails today indicating that there are questionable increases that some people have been receiving. For example, one couple that typically has a $400 bill received one for $1,200. These types of discrepancies have prompted an immediate review of this situation by Town staff as it appears that there may be something amiss in the billing. Stay tuned. We are addressing it ASAP.”

In the 2020 Rockport Town Report, Finance Director Megan Brackett wrote that Woodard and Curran, the wastewater engineers for the town, and she determined that Rockport was sending more discharge to Camden and Rockland to be treated that what the town had been billing to customers.

“We were able to identify sources of extra inflow from the basement study that was performed, and we feel we have identified two potential sources of infiltration, which we plan to resolve as soon as possible.”

The infiltration study involved directing public works staff to inspect 660 basements, with 10 marked for possible violations.

In 2019, the town pumped 17.8 million gallons to the Rockland wastewater treatment plant from the Warrenton Pump Station in Glen Cove, down from 18.6 million the prior year.

From the Goose River pump station at the head of the harbor, the town pumped 30 million gallons to Camden wastewater treatment plan, up from 28.8 million in 2018.