Acting on the recommendations of a consultant, Tisbury selectmen Tuesday approved a hike in the rate customers pay to use the town sewer system, despite complaints from one prominent Main Street business owner that the rates are unsustainable for the business community.
Selectmen agreed to raise the rates from $0.0375 per gallon to $0.0410 per gallon, and add a $50 quarterly base charge, which is slightly below what the consultant recommended.
In December, Douglas Gardner, president of Pioneer Consulting Group, provided selectmen with a lengthy presentation based on his evaluation of Department of Public Works (DPW) wastewater operations and finances. Mr. Gardner, in a seven-page report dated Nov. 30, evaluated Tisbury sewer rates.
Speaking to selectmen last night, he said current rates are not expected to cover future expenses. The current budget is about $890,000.
“The rates will generate a sufficient amount of revenue to meet the expenditure budget that was approved at town meeting,” Mr. Gardner said. “That hasn’t been the case in the past. If you do run a deficit, the Department of Revenue looks very unfavorably upon that … I’ve worked in many communities where the Department of Revenue has actually stepped in and said, ‘You are going to raise your rates midway through the year … at least twice as much as you normally would.’”
Mr. Gardner suggested all sewage customers be charged a quarterly base fee of $100, which would go toward daily operations, such as meter readings, billings, meter services, and administrative costs. Customers would pay a minimum of $400, regardless of actual wastewater use. The report also recommended the sewer rate, currently at $0.0375 per gallon, be raised to $0.0450 per gallon.
Asked how the proposed rate compares with other municipalities’, Mr. Gardner said it is “extremely high” for the approximately 125 town users.
“I don’t know of another community, at least that I work with, that has a rate this high,” he said. “You have a significant budget and very few users, and unfortunately with those two factors, it results in high rates.”
More than a decade ago, and following years of often heated debate, Tisbury built the town’s first municipal sewer system. Reacting to concerns that the new system would spur development and growth, Tisbury purposely built a wastewater treatment plant with limited capacity.
The decision to hobble the town’s capacity to treat wastewater meant that the cost would be spread among a limited number of users.
Tisbury’s sewer district includes all of the downtown Vineyard Haven area, from Main Street, starting around the former Le Grenier Restaurant, to the Lagoon Pond drawbridge. The wastewater collection system and treatment facility is located at the DPW facility on High Point Lane. User fees are calculated on the number of gallons of water used, not on the actual volume of flow that goes into the wastewater treatment plant.
Users complain that fees place an unfair burden on a limited number of businesses and organizations, and that the cost of operating in Tisbury will impact the town’s commercial base and efforts to develop affordable housing.
Sherman Goldstein, co-owner of the Mansion House, a hotel on Main Street and second largest user of the sewer system behind the Steamship Authority, said the rates were not sustainable for the business.
“We can’t afford this; it’s just not sustainable,” he said. “We’d be much better off closing up for January, February, and March. Nobody makes money in those months, but we stay open because we feel a connection to the community, we feel a connection to our employees, and we feel a connection to our enterprise.” He said the board needed to find a way to make the enterprise sustainable so that the town could grow.
Mr. Goldstein’s son, Josh Goldstein, manager of the Mansion House, encouraged the town to consider using other sources of funds, including embarkation fees, taxes, or grant money to defray some of the system costs. “I understand that this is an enterprise fund, but the sewer system does benefit the entire town, and one could argue the entire Island, by keeping our harbor clean,” he said.
Ben Hall Jr., whose family owns several buildings on Main Street, said he avoided connecting his buildings to the sewer system “like the plague.”
“You can’t ask the limited number of people, 120 units, to cover an $800,000-plus budget,” he said. “You can’t have your business community and a handful of residential users bearing the costs of the community to keep the harbor clean.” He recommended expanding the system and getting more users to help pay the overhead expenses.
After deliberation between town administrator Jay Grande, Mr. Gardner, and DPW director Ray Tattersall, the town officials agreed that cuts could be made to other parts of the budget, allowing for slightly lower rates and fees. Selectmen approved a quarterly base fee of $50 and a sewer rate of $0.0410 per gallon, with the caveat that the town and DPW reserves the right to reassess the rate and fees later in the year or as the need may arise.
“We feel confident that we can live within that as a path forward in terms of managing the wastewater operation financially,” Mr. Grande said.
Also Tuesday, selectmen addressed several other recommendations that Mr. Gardner made in December.
At that time, he recommended the town step up efforts to enforce billing collections, including late notices and interest charges after 30 days. In December, the town had $49,000 of outstanding collections, which contribute toward rate increases. Tisbury finance manager Jon Snyder said he has been working on getting those past-due bills collected.
“It’s much better than it was,” Mr. Gardner said. “We’ve definitely received money from ratepayers who have been slow in paying, or have not paid in the past. We have gotten a little bit more aggressive, but it’s going to take some time.”
Mr. Gardner also noted that the septage treatment plant is underutilized, and recommended marketing that service in order to generate more revenue. Tuesday, Mr. Tattersall said after upgrades to the plant, they can now accept much more flow, which will generate more revenue. The report recommended charging for service calls, including during regular hours, after hours, and for inspection services, which does not include town-related or town-provided equipment problems. Mr. Tattersall agreed that charging for services beyond the scope of normal daily tasks was an important implementation.
Eyesores will be removed
In other business Tuesday, Tisbury building and zoning inspector Ken Barwick asked permission from the selectmen to move forward with the process of demolishing the dilapidated building on the Beach Road Boch property. The next step will be creating a team, including the fire chief, police chief, and an engineer, to inspect the building and decide whether or not removal of the building is necessary.
“We have been dealing with this particular structure on assessor’s parcel 9C3 since April 18, 2013,” he said. Due to public safety requirements, he must take the building down, Mr. Barwick said.
The owner is Ernie Boch Jr., a well-known seasonal Edgartown resident, philanthropist, and president and CEO of Subaru of New England. Mr. Barwick said Mr. Boch has been notified, and still has ample time to work with the town on the removal process, and any future plans to develop the land. The town will absorb the immediate costs of removing the building, which will then be transferred to Mr. Boch.
Selectmen approved the request, with the stipulation that Mr. Boch be notified again.
Also Tuesday, Mr. Barwick said he will be working with Eversource to clean up the town power line rights-of-way of junk and debris, which has been a longstanding issue. Abutters have been asked to assist in the process of cleaning up, he said.
“They [Eversource] has been contacting these property owners with respect to notifying them that this debris is causing concern and that the debris has to be removed within a certain period of time or Eversource will take the bulls by the horns and bring the necessary workmen and equipment to the Island,” he said. “They will work to remove and dispose of it, and then go after the property owner for any costs they incurred to do so.”
Eversource will start on the Oak Bluffs side of the power lines, and move toward Mink Meadows.
“The main concern is fire,” Mr. Barwick said. “A lot of the equipment now that Eversource is using is aluminum, and obviously aluminum melts very quickly, and if any of that debris catches fire, it could knock the power supply out either in the town or possibly across the entire Island.”
Selectmen approved the request.
“I’m wholeheartedly granting this permission,” selectmen Melinda Loberg said. “I think this is a notorious dumping area.”
Selectmen also approved a request by the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District for busker permits. The district is working in partnership with the Tisbury Business Association and performing arts groups to start a “Saturday Stroll,” with hopes to attract more traffic to town by having music and acting performances in town during the summer months between 5 pm and 7 pm.
Selectmen appointed Ned Orleans to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to fill the unexpired term of Harold Chapdelaine.
The board of selectmen shifted power. On her birthday, Ms. Loberg was voted chairman of the board, and Larry Gomez vice chairman.