A proposed 16.9 percent rate increase for about 240,000 water users in western Massachusetts is being reconsidered following sharp criticism from elected officials.
Springfield City Councilors called the proposed rate hike “alarming” and “unfair” given the economic strain residents and businesses are under as a result of the pandemic.
During a teleconference meeting with councilors Tuesday, Vanessa Otero, one of the three board members who oversee the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, stressed the public utility has no source of money other than what it collects from ratepayers to fund its operations and critical infrastructure needs.
"That 16.9 percent is not something that comes out of thin air, but out of a process to assure we are investing in our infrastructure in a way that avoids a public health crisis of the kind you have seen in other parts of this country," Otero said.
The executive director of the commission Joshua Schimmel said at the time the rate increase was proposed on May 1 a $9 million revenue shortfall was being projected as a result of a 15-20 percent drop in water usage caused by the shutdown in March and April of many businesses and all schools.
Now, he said new data shows there has been a rebound in water usage in May, so he said the proposed rate increase will be reevaluated.
"So we still have a month to work on the budget and get more data points and squeeze and squeeze what we can out of it," said Schimmel.
The commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on June 2 on the proposed rates that would take effect on July 1.
Even before water consumption declined sharply in the midst of the public health crisis, Schimmel said the commission was looking at a 9-12 percent rate increase.
City Councilor Mike Fenton said combined water and sewer bills have increased by 43 percent in the last six years.
"I am sure there are some great explanations why that has to be the case given the infrastructure needs," said Fenton. "But when you look at it from a macro level over the last six years, I really have significant concerns about where we have been and where we are headed."
Given the extraordinary times, Councilors Orlando Ramos and Kateri Walsh said the commission should freeze or even lower its rates.
Other councilors participating in the meeting, including Sean Curran, Adam Gomez, Tracye Whitfield, Marcus Williams, Victor Davila, and Jesse Lederman, urged the commission to pursue financial help from the state and federal governments.
"We need to have a serious conversation with our elected represenatives relative to that, but in the meantime it is on us to figure out how to make sure the residents of Springfield aren't caught holding the bag." said Lederman.
Schimmel said a customer assistance program is being created that would lower the water bills for about 4,000 low-income residential customers. Also, the commission has raised from $33 to $75 a discount for senior citizens and disabled military veterans.
The commission voted to extend the suspension of late fees, interest, and shutoffs for nonpayment until August 1.