By Bill Kirk
---- — The Board of Selectmen narrowly approved an increase in water and sewer rates Monday night, meaning ratepayers will fork over an additional $29 a year in fiscal 2014.
Serving in their capacity as water and sewer commissioners, selectmen OK’d a proposal by Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski to increase sewer rates by 8 percent. The vote was 4-1, with Chairman Alex Vispoli voting against the measure.
However, the town manager’s initial request for a 2.5 percent water rate increase failed on a 3-2 vote. Voting against it were Vispoli, Paul Salafia and Dan Kowalski. Voting in favor of it were Brian Major and Mary Lyman.
Vispoli had argued that Stapczynski should have brought the rate increases to the Board of Selectmen for a vote prior to the May 7 Town Meeting so that voters would know what the rates were before acting on the new fiscal budget.
Salafia argued that the town manager’s justification for the water rate increase — that the town needed to bump up its water reserve in case of emergency and because that was “tradition” — didn’t make sense.
“We don’t need reserves to be so large,” Salafia said. “I haven’t seen any evidence of a catastrophe. My sense is, we have room to save money. My hope is we can save the money.”
Kowalski said several times that he wanted the town manager to create a 10-year plan for the water and sewer departments, rather than the five-year plan he presented at the meeting.
“Is there more information you can bring back to the board to better justify the increase?” he asked. “If we had more information in July or August, could the board change the rate then?”
Stapczynski said the new water bills need to go out in July and that delaying the rate change would mean putting a new rate in place during the second round of billing.
“We’d start the fiscal year with one rate, and then go up to another rate,” he said, adding that wouldn’t be fair to ratepayers.
Major proposed a compromise water rate of 1 percent, meaning the average water user’s bill will go up around $4 a year instead of $8 a year.
The remaining $150,000 shortfall could be made up by moving money out of reserves into the water fund’s operating budget.
Lyman noted, “That’s a good middle ground. It’s not a huge jump.” And Kowalski said the motion was a “good idea to move us forward.”
The compromise was approved 3-2, with Kowalski changing his vote.
Vispoli said while he was disappointed in the outcome, he was pleased with the level of detail provided by the town manager about the water and sewer budgets.
“It was one of the most comprehensive reviews we’ve seen, and that’s because we questioned it,” he said. “With more detail and more discussion, you get a better view of the situation. We wouldn’t have had that level of detail if we hadn’t insisted on answers.”
He said that in the future, he will insist the town manager provide “that type of comprehensive review before Town Meeting and before any kind of adjustment’s requested. The sequence was completely backward. I stand by my statement because this is the second time it’s happened.”
He added, “That’s our job. Residents expect us to question the budget. We all are taxpayers.”