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Vote Could Raise Water and Sewer Rates for Residents

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Residents in Pittsfield could soon be paying higher water and sewer rates. The city council will vote Tuesday whether to approve Mayor Dan Bianchi’s proposal to raise water and sewer rates for the third straight year. Residents would see an annual fee increase of nearly 7-and-a-half dollars if the 2.5-percent hike is approved at the city council meeting. City Councilor and Chair of the Public Works Subcommittee Chris Connell says the increase is in line with ones over the past two years so residents don’t feel a big financial crunch during one year. He says even if the rate hike is approved, Pittsfield’s water rates will remain near the cheapest in the Commonwealth.

“The 2.5 is a small increase," Connell said. "I know there are residents out there that are on fixed incomes and it will become a burden, but the bottom line is our hands are really tied here.”

The new rates would create more revenue for projects Connell says are necessary for the city to update to its outdated water treatment plant on Holmes Road.

“We’re facing some big infrastructure improvements at the wastewater treatment plant to comply with the EPA," said Connell.

If approved, the rate would go into effect retroactively to usage starting July 1, the start of fiscal year 2014. The proposal would also have property owners with meters pay a 7-cent increase for every 100 cubic feet of water use or discharge. The new rates would raise about $130,000 in sewer revenue and roughly $100,000 in water service this fiscal year, according to Public Works Commissioner Bruce Collingwood in a statement to The Berkshire Eagle.

Connell says the city has tried to make the Environmental Protection Agency reconsider its allowed levels for chemicals like nitrate and phosphate that are discharged back into water sources from treatment plants with no success.

“A few years back, we had tried to appeal the EPA’s decision to lower the phosphate levels at that time into the Housatonic," said Connell.

The Finance Committee has reviewed and recommended the rate increase for approval along with the mayor’s proposals to borrow money for water and sewer infrastructure improvements. These include the city borrowing $10.8 million for improvements to the Holmes Road wastewater treatment plant and $9.2 million toward work at the Farnham Reservoir Dam. Some of the borrowed money will also go to improve the city’s public water distribution system. City officials say the loans will be paid back using revenue from user fees, funding from the city’s capital budget, and low-interest state loans.

Collingwood says the rate increases are happening now because there are more projects to do.

“We are at that point where there’s going to be a higher frequency of new capital projects compared to previous years back," said Collingwood.

Councilor and member of the Finance Subcommittee Melissa Mazzeo raising the water and sewer rates will go directly towards improving the systems.

“I would think raising the water rates, to me that would be the way to go because they are so low," said Mazzeo.

She also says Pittsfield is not alone in dealing with this issue.  

“We’re not the only community, this is across the country," she said. "Everybody’s getting hit with these same federal regulations.”

Mazzeo and Connell say they are fairly certain the council will vote to approve the mayor’s proposed rate increases out of necessity.

“It’s something that has to be done," Connell said. "Do we want to do it? No. But we’re forced to do so.”

Mazzeo is optimistic the federal government will step in to help out communities like Pittsfield that are trying to revamp their treatment plants to meet the EPA regulations.

“At some point I think the federal government is going to have to come in and say 'Wait a minute," she said. "People are going to bankrupt at some point in some of these communities or they're not going to be able to follow this. Maybe they're going to step up and help some communities."

The city council’s meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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