Private Housatonic Water Works Company seeks 34 percent rate increase

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By Thursday, Jan 28 News  10 Comments
Heather Bellow
Housatonic resident Jane Wright, right, addresses Department of Public Utilities commissioners at public hearing at the Housie Dome. To her right, in white shirt, is Housatonic Water Works (HWW) attorney William Martin. To his right is HWW president James Mercer. Photo: Heather Bellow

Housatonic — A private water company trying to raise its rates for overhead and infrastructure work over the coming years prompted residents to come to a hearing at Housie Dome Wednesday (January 27) night to tell officials from the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) that they simply can’t afford an increase.

The Housatonic Water Works Company (HWWC) filed with the DPU for an increase that would cause a metered customer’s fixed charge to jump from $34.32 to $41.18, a 20 percent increase. HWWC wants to also add volume charge $4.42 for every 1,000 gallons used per month, and $8.84 for every thousand gallons over 2,500. HWWC says a “typical residential customer” using 5,500 gallons per month would see an increase of $20.10 (34.27 percent). The increase would result in an income to HWWC of $187,099, and would vary depending on the season.

 

In the Housie Dome Housatonic residents attend the hearing before the DPU on a proposed 20 percent rate increase sought by the Housatonic Water Works.

In the Housie Dome Housatonic residents attend the hearing before the DPU on a proposed 20 percent rate increase sought by the Housatonic Water Works. Photo: Heather Bellow

The company draws water from Long Pond in Great Barrington, and supplies it to 850 customers in Housatonic Village, Great Barrington, and small areas of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Housatonic Village is part of Great Barrington proper.

HWWC told the DPU that an increase is necessary to cover higher operating expenses and state-mandated upgrades to the system over the next few years that will cost $500,000. Another $134,000 will be spent on “plant costs” as a result of the upgrades. HWWC’s last rate increase was in 2008. Rates will not go up this year, according to the DPU, until the agency has investigated the “propriety” of the rate hike.

“It’s a town already overburdened by escalating taxes,” said Housatonic resident Michelle Loubert, who also mentioned a coming increase in sewer rates, and the challenges of living in a town where incomes can’t keep up with property taxes or the cost of living.

“Water is a basic need,” Loubert added, “and should not be available to only those who can afford it.”

Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin addresses DPU commissioners. Photo: Heather Bellow

Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin addresses DPU commissioners. Photo: Heather Bellow

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, representing the Selectboard, said that while HWWC provides a “critical service” as “a privately owned company that provides public water,” the Selectboard “recognizes that the increased cost of public services is a strain on the budgets of many families and businesses in town.” Tabakin asked that HWWC and the DPU look at ways to “control costs.” She also asked that for more details about what needs fixing and maintaining, and the schedule for doing so. She said it was hard to say whether the rate increase was needed without more particulars.

HWWC President Jim Mercer said it’s all there in the rate application, which is on the company’s website. He also says the master plan that will stretch over the next 20 years will be up on the site soon. He’s says his company is taking a “proactive approach” so that “catastrophic things — like in Flint [Michigan] and Troy [New York] — that wind up costing rate payers a lot more money” don’t happen here.

There will be two phases. The first, from 2016 to 2021, and for which the company has financing, will deal with meters, which are more than 20-years old. He says this is also a “conservation effort that meshes with DPU and MassDEPs [Department of Environmental Protection] concerns. Nationally, there’s a lot of water that’s unaccounted for that harms ecosystems and is wasteful,” Mercer added.

The new electronic system will allow customers to monitor their own usage and set up alerts for their smartphone or computer. The company would get the same warning, and could address leaks before customers are charged, Mercer said.

Then there are the old pipes, 1,000 feet of which need upgrade.

The second phase, from 2022 to 2028 is not financed yet, and would involve a new line from the plant to Route 41. That would serve as a “backup line” to the 130-year old main that brings water to the center of town, Mercer said. It is considered “industry standard” to have one.

This phase will also address what the Great Barrington Fire Department considers inadequate pressure and volume in Housatonic’s fire hydrants. “We’ll be adding lines and upgrades to insure adequate pressure.”

It is a situation that appears to illustrate the challenges of the county-wide increase in an aging population on fixed incomes, and a tax base that isn’t strong enough to offset property taxes for those who work in the local economy and whose wages can’t keep up.

Housatonic resident Kathryn Benner. Photo: Heather Bellow

Housatonic resident Kathryn Benner. Photo: Heather Bellow

Housatonic resident Kathryn Benner at one point wept as she spoke to DPU officials. “There are a lot of single moms in this town,” she said. “Our taxes went up…[the increase] seems so extravagant.” Yet, she said, “I know Mr. Mercer is a great guy…but it feels like a monopoly…to have one person have all that control over everyone’s lives in the community.”

Margorie Miles limped to the microphone with her cane. “I’m single, I live alone,” she said.

Jane Wright said she was concerned about the quality of water delivered by the company, noting fast “sediment” build up. “I’m constantly cleaning my teapot,” she said. “There’s sediment on the bottom. I worry about what’s in the water.” She said she was also worried about the “impact on commerce…we have a world class bakery here and two new restaurants.”

Wright wanted to know “why the system hasn’t been maintained over the years the Mercer family has owned it.”

“I’ve seen Jim Mercer out in the rain with his plumbers’ wrench trying to keep everything going on a Sunday,” said Gerry Glick. “I’ve also seen him out in the rain digging up pipes that are broken. The family does make an effort to keep system going. It seems that there should be a way to pay for the necessary changes and technology to keep the system going without burdening people in Housatonic that are very poor.”

Several others said that like Tabakin, they wanted more details about the upgrades.

HWWC’s rate application shows the company’s operating expenses in 2014 at roughly $547,000 with salaries of “General Officers and Clerks” at $203,000 total and $36,500 of that clerical. The company proposes a 3 percent wage increase as well. The company paid $23,814 in property taxes to the town that year.

“I went to school in Housatonic,” Mercer said. “I know most of the elderly there. We’re very sensitive to the rate increase. It is a challenge. We are private, so we don’t have access to federal funds.”

He said he was hopeful that with a current national interest in water, there might be new federal programs available to help offset the expense.

“We try to work with people and set up payment plans. I know people are struggling.”

The DPU is accepting comments until Friday, January 29 at 5 p.m. by emailing both dpu.efiling@state.ma.us and the hearing officer, Staci.Rubin@state.ma.us.

For more information go to housatonicwater.com.


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10 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ted B. says:

    I wish I went to the meeting !
    Anyhow…there a lot of things that simply bother me about the whole rate increase !
    Lets start with me. It’s just me !
    I pay the minimum $34.42 for 2,500 gallons of water ! I ONLY use maximum 1,500 gallons !
    Housatonic Water Works IS a monopoly ! You can’t go anywhere else to get that life giving water !
    At least with Time Warner Cable, you can go to Dish or the other companies !
    This monopoly is supported by the town bylaws, it says something about you CAN’T install a well within I think it’s 100 feet of a sewer line ! Try that on a town lot ! Don’t forget your neighbors sewer line !
    I also think there’s a bylaw that says you can’t install a well if “Municipal ” water is available !
    If you go to the Housatonic Water Works website, you can look at all the 102 pages of the application . I did !
    On line 610-1 ” Salaries of General Officers & Clerks ” , 2014, per books, $203,289 .
    I’ve called the office before, I suspect there is a secretary . If you look at the other financials, you’ll see a statement they have paid out $15,000 + or – for labor. So 3 people can run this company of 850 + customers ?
    Lets say that Mr. Mercer is a generous guy and pays his secretary $50,000 a year. It doesn’t say how many Officers there are, maybe it’s just him, does he pay himself $150,000 + a year ?
    I understand this a private company, and it’s none of our business ! BUT we are paying for it !
    Who’s to say if he does get the increase he’s asking for and then gives himself a $50,000 raise for a job well done ?
    And of course there’s this other problem of the sewer bill ! They’ll never except the metering of a private company for billing purposes ! So I get to pay even more money !
    Ted

    1. Heather Bellow says:

      Hi Ted. Based on what I saw in the filing, of that $203,289, $36,500 is “clerical.” I tried to get a sense of this, as well, and asked Mr. Mercer if he was willing to tell me his salary, but he would not be specific, and said he was “happy with his compensation.”

    2. Ted B. says:

      And oh ya I forgot !
      There is a pipe that connects you to Housatonic Water Works system. I think it’s called the corporation or something like that ! If you haven’t replaced it by now because of a leak there, which you are responsible, that pipe which is about 3 feet long, is made of LEAD ! So every gallon of water that’s come into your house has gone through this lead pipe !

  2. Michelle Loubert says:

    Wow! This hurts! But this aligns with my statements regarding grant eligibility at the HWW hearing. Read the Edge story on the Eagle mills where there is a possibility of a MassWorks grant to assist with Lee water lines. The grant is tied to economic development (article refers to Great Barrington’s grant for Bridge St.). Shame that funds aren’t available for water infrastructure upgrades here in Housatonic to help the village with economic development. Read the Eagle Mill article. It states, “Main Street’s 200 year old pipes are already too outdated to serve the town.” Sound familiar Housatonic? Both Lee and Housatonic are old mill towns so maybe we can learn something. Of course, HWW is a private water provider. Maybe that no longer works for our community if we are now losing out on money that would benefit the community that HWW serves and these Great Barrington citizens are left vulnerable–and broke.

  3. Michelle Loubert says:

    I encourage Housatonic Water Works customers to read the January 30, 2016 Berkshire Eagle article, “Erin Brockovich to Hoosick Falls, N.Y., residents: ‘Everyone entitled to safe, pure water’ (author Damon). Statements by Brockovich that can easily apply to the plight of Housatonic Water Works customers. At present, our issue is cost. In the future, who knows? Where will the customers of this PRIVATE water company turn? But as Brockovich pointed out in this article, “it’s important for people to know how they can advocate for themselves. “They will start realizing they can make a choice and that they have a voice.”

  4. Ted B. says:

    Michelle , it sounds like Mr. Mercer and his company could use a grant writer !
    If my memory recalls correctly, after the horror of 9/11 I think the FEDS passed some sort of legislation demanding that municipal water works had a secondary source ?
    I thought that there were rumblings of a take over of the Housatonic Water Works by the Great Barrington entity.
    I don’t know how long you have been around Great Barrington Michelle……but back in the 80’s I think the town of Great Barrington took over the dump across the street from Monument Mountain High. It was owned by the Mercer family. The town only gave 1.2 Million or something like that. The Mercers sued the town AND won ! They got something like 5 million ! I’m mentioning this because I just think the town of Great Barrington is just simply afraid of the Mercers and the there war chest !

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Hi Ted: I’m familiar with that history but in the 80s, I was still fairly young (and unaware) and didn’t yet appreciate public participation in town government. Different story today. I quickly found out that if citizens do not participate in the process, others will make decisions for them.. And that’s not always a good thing. In any event, I’m born and raised in Van Deusenville/Housatonic, my parents’ parents Italian and German immigrants (and I think a little Irish in there for good measure!) immigrating to Great Barrington and Housatonic. So, deep roots, long history, and strong interest in our community. Thank you for your response!

  5. Ted B. says:

    Hi Michelle!
    I should know who you are !
    I have the similar story.
    I’ve lived in Housatonic most of my life. Family came over after WWII in 1952, settled in Housatonic, worked at the mills.
    I’m with you, only a handful of people actually make the decisions .
    Lots of people don’t have time , just trying to raise a family, don’t want to stick there necks out etc.!
    It’s like the town annual meeting ! If you want something….you just stack the deck and have a bunch of voters that want the same thing and vote for it, IE, the new fire truck !
    I’m one of them who actually filed a letter on the docket DPU 15-179.
    http://web1.env.state.ma.us/DPU/FileRoom/dockets/bynumber
    I just looked again, only 5 people said anything, out of 800 + customers, and that’s the way it goes. But of course not everybody is handy with the computer. Most of those who went to the meeting were older, usually not the ones who are computer literate !
    I just went to the Housatonic Water Works website, if you went there, there was that 2 page letter informing you of the meeting etc. It also had an easy link to the DPU page were you could see those comments about the docket….it’s now gone !
    Ted

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Hi Ted: After my comments at Wednesday night’s meeting, I submitted my 30 page “statement” which included supporting documentation to the DPU’s Staci Rubin and a second copy to the state stenographer for the official record. This highlights a big difference between the Great Barrington Fire District and the Housatonic Water Works: GBFD, communication is at the GBFD building on East Street or Town Hall or before the Select Board; HWW customers, before the state, dockets, official statements, lawyers, interveners, etc. We shouldn’t have to go through this.

  6. Michelle Loubert says:

    I believe the count was about 60.

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