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Councilors, commissioners spar over new water rates


June 13, 2014

By G. Michael Dobbs
news@thereminder.com

CHICOPEE – After more than an hour of discussion on June 10, members of the City Council’s Water Resource Committee secured an agreement from the Water Commission at its next meeting to reconsider the rate increase the commission proposed .
   
When the commission will next meet is not known at this time, according to Water Department Superintendent Alan Starzyk. The meeting must be posted according to the open meeting law and the commission generally convenes once a month.
   
He explained that although the rate increases were set in place to take effect on July 1, the Water Commission is not legally bound by that date and can make a final decision on rates at a later time. 
   
The commission’s plan was to put a new rate structure in place for July 1. It would eliminate the two tiered system established in 2012 and established one rate of $3.60 per 1,000 cubic feet of water used.
   
For some customers, that means their rate would jump from $2.70 per 1,000 cubic feet of water to $3.60.
   
“I don’t think it’s fair to the average homeowner,” City Councilor James Tillotson said. He added the commission should return to a two-tier system.
  
 “You’re hitting the people who are really trying to save,” Tillotson added.
   
Several councilors said they had received calls from upset constituents about the proposed increase.
  
 Starzyk and Water Commissioner Alfred Pinciak explained the increase in the rate was due to several factors, including: the cost of sewer separation projects mandated by the federal government; the cost of water the city buys from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority; and the fact that Chicopee residents are using less water.
   
Starzyk explained that water use in the city is at an all-time low, which cuts down on the revenues.
   
“We’re getting caught in a paradox,” Starzyk said.
   
Starzyk walked the councilors through the process of determining the new rate by explaining the commission had considered four different scenarios concerning the bonding of planned sewer separation projects and other costs.
   
Pinciak said, “The most difficult thing we have to do is to decide a rate hike.”
  
 Starzyk said the department needs additional workers and equipment in order to save money on the sewer separation projects. If done by an outside contractor replacing water pipes costs the city $350 a linear foot. If done by Water Department personnel the cost drops to about $150 a foot, he explained.
  
 “We have to do the work ourselves, “Starzyk said.
  
Starzyk also described the sewer separation project for downtown Chicopee as potentially difficult as it is the oldest part of the city.
   
The Water Department currently has an almost $3 million surplus and Tillotson said, “I don’t think you need the revenue.”
   
He asked, “Why don’t you do it [raise rates] as you need it? Do you have enough money to run the department next year with a two-tier system?”
   
Councilor Robert Zygarowski then asked, “Can you live with a two-tier system?”
   
Pinciak responded, “We can live with anything until you’re at the end of the trail and you can’t afford anything.”
  
 
Jeffrey Neece, the superintendent of the Department of Public Works, said, “The Water Department has the responsibility of the biggest public health operation in the city.”
   
Referring to the rate increase, he added, “We don’t work in a vacuum.”
   
Tillotson asked Neece to stop the “theatricality.” The councilor suggested the City Council is empowered by the City Charter to set the rates.
   
Starzyk later said the Water Commission is empowered to determine rates.

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