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.
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.”
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 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.”
For more information go to housatonicwater.com.