| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – The COVID-19 pandemic has affected an aspect of life that one might not think it would alter: the cost of water.
The Springfield Water & Sewer Commission said a 17 percent rate increase is necessary for capital improvements to the water system and noted their revenues have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rate increase proposed by the commission has brought forth criticism from Mayor Domenic Sarno and members of the city council.
In a letter sent to news outlets Sarno wrote, “I have voiced to the Water and Sewer Commission, while we do have one of the best water systems in the country and continued infrastructure investments and improvements are key to keeping it top notch, we are currently living in surreal/extraordinary times, in which we are all making difficult sacrifices.
“While we remain cognizant that we do not want a Flint, Michigan water system failure to occur here, I have urged the Water and Sewer Commission to reconsider and be reasonable to their proposed rate hike, especially to our senior citizens. I have asked them to also pursue potential Federal infrastructure funding initiatives to offset these costs and increasing the Senior Citizens discounts too.”
In a press release the commission explained, “In 2019 and 2020 the commission began implementation of a strategic plan for much-needed investment in our water and wastewater infrastructure. That plan projected a three-year Capital Investment Program (CIP) of approximately $87.2 million, in addition to ongoing CIP expenditures of more than $114.5 million. In FY20, the plan had to be increased by $15 million due to the unexpected mechanical failure of a critical valve and pipeline connecting Cobble Mountain Reservoir to the West Parish Filters Water Treatment Plant. As this was being factored into the CIP, the Commission began experiencing a significant decrease in consumption of 15-20 percent due to the many businesses, industries, and schools and universities that shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The commission will conduct a public hearing about the rate increase as a streaming event on June 2 starting at 6 p.m. Members of the public can participate in the public hearing by telephone or computer: To join by telephone call 413-261-6430, Conference ID: 566 881 166#. The hearing can be seen at https://bit.ly/2YfIUnK.
Relevant documents will be available on the commission’s web page at www.waterandsewer.org and the commission encourages interested parties to submit questions and comments in advance of the hearing.
Even with the rate increase, the commission maintained Springfield water rates will still be lower than many others in the Commonwealth. The commission noted, “If approved, the proposed FY21 combined water and sewer rate for residential customers will increase 16.9 percent. The residential water rate will increase from $3.62 per 100 cubic feet (CCF) to $4.23 per CCF. The residential sewer rate will increase from $5.71 to $6.67 per CCF. The typical household water and sewer bill is estimated to increase an average of $140.88 annually, or approximately $11.74 per month. The proposed rate increases will be applied to water and sewer use beginning July 1, 2020, with the increases reflected in bills issued in August 2020. Even with this increase, the Commission’s rate structure continues to be in the lower half of water and sewer rates across our region and the country.”
City Councilor Jesse Lederman posted his reaction on his Facebook page, “I have heard from many of you in the last week regarding the proposed increase in rates by the Water and Sewer Commission.
“The size of this proposed increase is due to lost revenues as a result of closures of large parts of our economy, but passing the costs associated with the pandemic solely on to ratepayers is not in line with the broader efforts to prepare our communities for economic recovery.
“This morning I filed comments to that effect with the commission, and sent a letter to the state and federal legislative delegation calling on them to consider relief funds for lost revenues by water utilities like the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission due to COVID-19 so that we can ensure our systems can deliver safe and reliable water, keep up with needed maintenance and upgrades, and remain as affordable as possible.”
City Councilor Sean Curran issued the following statement, “Over the last 10 years, the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission has been raising water rates here in Springfield, without much vocal opposition. However, residents and small business need relief from these consecutive water rate increases.
“Imposing a 17 percent rate increase at a time when many residents have been out of work and many small businesses shuttered due the coronavirus lock-down, is going to slow the city’s economic recovery.
“Moreover, the vast majority of Springfield residents will not be able to voice their opposition to the proposed increase, as the next public meeting will take place via zoom. Most folks do not have access to the zoom platform.
“It is troubling that at a time when water usage is down 10 percent, the solution to the funding shortfall is to increase rates 17 percent.
“I am well aware of the costs of delivering water to the residents of Springfield and Western Massachusetts. However, placing that burden squarely on the residents of Springfield and surrounding communities in the form of sky-high rates is not the solution.
“Again, at a time when the residents and small businesses in Springfield are facing unprecedented economic and healthcare burdens, I respectfully request that the Water and Sewer Commission rethink its 17 percent rate increase.”
Commission Executive Director Joshua Schimmel said, “In recent years we have seen the effects of under-investment and short-sighted cost-saving in the water sector, most notably leading to lead crises in various cities across the United States. As the commission continues to monitor and respond to the financial impacts of our current situation, we know that the one thing none of us can afford is to have our water and wastewater systems be at risk for failure. The commission continues to call on state and federal elected officials and agencies to not only provide regular support for the financing of these critically important capital investments, but to aid in the recovery from the economic impacts being experienced due to COVID-19.”