BENNINGTON — The Select Board has approved increases in the fiscal 2020 water and sewer service rates as part of a long-term management plan officials believe will cause rates to level off after three or four years.
The board voted to approve a rate plan that includes a 10.5 percent hike in the sewer rates and a 7.5 percent hike in water rates.
In outlining the proposal, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said it was finalized after a recent board work session on rate issues that included office and public works employees. An overriding goal, he said, is to account going forward for depreciation of equipment and regularly required maintenance and replacement as well as the year-to-year operational costs.
"This board recognizes the problems we face trying to maintain water and sewer infrastructure while also facing depreciation [related] cost increases," Hurd said, calling those factors the "primary reasons these two budgets are being heavily impacted this year."
He added that in past years, "the Select Board has kept rates artificially low and did not budget for depreciation or set aside [reserve funds]."
But he said that practice began to change in 2014, when the costs of depreciation were factored into budgets.
Examples of major maintenance or repair expenses, which required bonding for projects, include a $9.85 million bond for ongoing wastewater facility upgrades, in part to allow it to meeting federal requirements for treated water that is discharged into the Walloomsac River; and some $10 million in borrowing since 2004 for water system upgrades to the town's water filtration plant and to install a water tank above Southern Vermont College to increase line pressure along Jefferson Heights and Crescent Boulevard.
Hurd said the Select Board "now recognizes the importance of depreciation [and maintaining reserve funds]."
However, Bennington ratepayers are "probably looking at increases in this range for the next three or four years before things start to level off," he said.
The 2020 rates approved this week for water service are a quarterly flat rate of $145.95 or a metered rate of $5.41 for 1,000 gallons. That is up from the current $135.77 quarterly flat rate and $5.03 metered rate for 1,000 gallons.
The new sewer rates will be a flat rate of $109.68 or a metered rate of $3.81 per 1,000 gallons. The current sewer rates are $99.25 as a flat rate or $3.45 per 1,000 gallons.
The town's rates are rising, said board Chairman Donald Campbell, but a list of rates from several other Vermont municipalities, prepared by the town office staff, shows Bennington's costs compare favorably.
When the total cost for both services is combined, the town "still looks pretty good," he said.
Water and/or sewer rates were compiled from Brattleboro, Montpelier, Manchester, North Bennington, Rutland City and Waterbury.
While communities bill differently in some cases, such as by setting a higher business rate or separating the services, rates here appear to be in the middle to lower range among those municipalities, local officials said.
Board member Jeanne Connor said she wanted to point out that energy efficiency upgrades in the planning stages could have an impact on electricity usage, lowering overall costs.
The board was not happy with the need for increases, she said, but "we really did push back" on electricity expenses and other line items in hammering out the water and sewer budgets.
According to a handout from the town manager, the water rates are expected to generate $3,063,800 toward the next budget, while the sewer rates will generate $2,285,708 for the sewer system budget.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien