By Bill Kirk
---- — A 5 percent rate hike is in store for water users, but sewer rates will hold steady for another year.
The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously last week to increase the water rate to pay for the costly benefits of retired department employees and to maintain an aging water system.
It should mean an increase of less than $20 a year for the average water user in town, according to estimates presented to selectmen, who by town charter are also water and sewer commissioners.
Plant and Facilities Director Chris Cronin had been seeking a 2.5 percent increase in both water and sewer rates. He said the vote on the sewer rate was disappointing, but he was happy with the vote on the water rate.
“Five percent on the water rate means more revenue coming into town coffers,” he said, adding that there are some immediate projects that need to be tackled. There are no corresponding needs in the sewer system.
“We have miles of unlined water mains, there are immediate needs in the water treatment plant that are extremely important now,” he said. “They (selectmen) understand that. They voted for higher than what I suggested. It’s a good thing, not just for the water and sewer department, but it’s good for the taxpayer. They are going to have a healthier water system.”
The town’s water system has taken a public relations beating over the last year or so, starting with numerous reports of brown water coming out of the tap last summer followed by an ongoing legal battle with a resident over the cleaning of a water storage tank.
James Berberian of 2-4 Bancroft Road sued the town after Water Department employees cleaning out the Bancroft Street underground water storage tank in 2010 dumped sludge laced with arsenic and other heavy metals on his property. The lawsuit was settled late last year, with the town paying Berberian $500,000 while spending $600,000 on legal fees.
That settlement is being paid for at least partly out of the water enterprise account, which is funded by water rates.
At last week’s hearing, however, the emphasis was on how much money employees at the water plant are earning.
Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli read off a list of salaries and overtime costs, noting that in some cases, Water Department employees were making as much money as department heads in town.
One employee, he said, makes a $64,000 salary, with $53,500 in overtime, for a total of about $121,000. He went down a list, without naming names, of a half-dozen employees whose overtime is exorbitant.
“To me, that’s a red flag,” he said. “In the private sector, you’d say that’s not sustainable.”
Cronin countered, however, that four years ago he went before the Board of Selectmen, which included Vispoli, and asked for approval to hire two more employees to keep overtime costs down.
“You voted against that,” Cronin said.
He added that the real costs of running the Water Department are in the pipes and equipment needed to distribute water throughout the community.
Selectman Dan Kowalski said the increase in the water rate was essentially the town paying for the sins of the past.
“We are paying now for 12 years of no water rate increases,” he said. “How much infrastructure work did we do? North Andover has zero miles of unlined, cast-iron pipe. We have 170 miles of unlined, cast-iron pipe. The only way to do it is to raise the rates.”
But selectmen weren’t so keen on raising sewer rates.
Selectman Brian Major proposed two sewer rate increases — one for 2.75 percent and another for 2.5 percent — but both failed for lack of a second. The board then voted 3-2 in favor of a zero-percent increase in sewer rates, with Major and Kowalski opposed.
“That was a bad vote,” Cronin said after the vote. “We have a lot of debt out there.”
The town is still paying off a municipal sewer expansion project from 10 or 12 years ago. While betterment fees were supposed to keep pace with the debt payments, many people paid off their betterments in a lump sum while refinancing their homes, Cronin said.
Instead of putting those lump-sum betterment payments into a dedicated fund, officials said the town spent it on operating costs. Now, sewer debt payments are higher than the revenues coming in from the betterment fees.