2016-06-24 / Community

Kennebunkport stands pat on sewer fees

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Selectmen have decided sewage services will flow as they always have, at least so far as billing is concerned.

At its June 9 meeting, the board heard a presentation from Steve Clifton, vice president of Underwood Engineers, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Clifton presented comparisons on four different billing models, including the flat-rate billing currently used by the town.

To do that, Clifton used data provided by the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District (KKWWD) for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

In that year, KKWWD moved 11.4 million cubic feet of water, for an average of 234 gallons used per day, per customer. Breaking that down for the Kennebunk Sewer Department – which has 2,306 “sewer units served,” or unique connections, from 1,388 customers, and a budget for FY 2014 of $1.1 million – Clifton predicted the average year-round residential household, discharging an average of 6,305 cubic feet of wastewater per year, should be paying a flat rate of $416 per year – not far off from the actual cost of service now expended by the sewer department of $417 per residential user.

That tally included funding for a $2 million bond to pay for line upgrades next year, as well as a theoretical $7 million bond for similar maintenance in 2025.

Each proposed billing method – the flat rate per sewer unit, as well as ones based on actual consumption per unit, a metered measurement of service, and a so-called “town staff” calculation similar to one used by the Wells Sewer Department – had to raise a minimum of $997,180 per year, Clifton said. That figure comes from the current $1.1 million budget minus $117,000 in non-user revenue generated per year.

The “yardstick,” Clifton said, was how each methodology would impact the average year-round residential customer discharging a “normal strength” of wastewater.

Currently, the Kennebunkport Sewer Department has 1,283 residential users. That includes 909 year-round accounts (71 percent) and 328 season accounts (25 percent), as well as 46 listed as “other.” Those residential accounts have 1,480 individual sewer connections.

The town also has 105 commercial accounts, including 80 year-round (76 percent) and 25 seasonal (24 percent), with 916 individual sewer connections.

While business customers are only 8 percent of all sewer department accounts, they collectively consume about 35 percent of all water used. Therefore, Clifton’s comparisons only looked at how the different billing methods would impact the “equivalent residential user,” or ERU, discharging 129 gallons per day, or 41,161 gallons (6,305 cubic yards) per year.

What he found was that the ERU account could expect a 6 percent rate hike to $442 per year under a measurement of consumption per sewer unit, and 10 percent, to $456, under the Wells billing method. More alarmingly, rates would jump 65 percent to $685 per year when measuring consumption via water meters.

For “very low” water consumers, using 1,800 cubic feet per year, rates would drop 10 percent, to $376 per year, under the consumption by unit billing, and by 6 percent under the Wells model, while only climbing 49 percent by metered use.

However, for “higher users,” defined at 21,500 cubic feet used per year, rates would climb across the board, by 60 percent for consumption by unit, 118 percent for metered measurements, and 274 percent when calculated as Wells does it.

The net effect, Clifton noted in a larger spreadsheet provided to selectmen, would be to shift costs to residential users from commercial accounts under any method of billing other than the current flat-rate system.

For the average-use commercial account using 11,200 cubic feet of water per year, rates would fall 6 percent under the consumption by unit method, from the current flat rate of $1,665 per year, to $1,564. Actual metering would result in a 55 percent drop to $757, while the Wells town method would see commercial accounts drop 51 percent to $810 per year.

“So, we are saying the flat-rate billing method is the most equitable for the town,” Clifton said, noting that his calculations did not account for the $20,000 cost for the town to switch billing systems.

“The burden of that on 1,300 users, or so, is that you are going to charge them another $10 just to get the information to do the billing analysis,” he said.

The decision for selectmen did not seem a difficult one.

“So, status quo?” board chairman Sheila Matthews-Bull asked, eliciting nods from all sides.

The board took no action on other recommendations made by Clifton, to raise septage fees from $100 to $155 per gallon, given that the current rate does not cover actual costs, and to raise rates periodically in anticipation of rising costs. About 85 percent of sewer department costs are fixed in the form of employee salaries and other non-negotiables come budget time, while 15 percent can vary from year-to-year.

Clifton also recommended trying to identify the sources of so-called “high-strength” waste that is tougher to treat at the sewer treatment plant, and assessing a surcharge on those users.

Whether any advice other than to stay the course will be acted upon remains to be seen, but Town Manager Laurie Smith said Clifton’s research “will make a good reference for future boards.”

“We really beat that horse,” she said. “I felt satisfied at the end of it that we really examined it and feel like the system is probably as equitable as it can be.

“There are idiosyncrasies in any system and for us it’s really the seasonal nature of our system. The flows change dramatically with that,” Smith said. “The good news, which a lot of systems don’t have, is that we have a lot of capacity. So, certainly, if there is more growth within our sewer system, we can certainly take that on.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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