Tisbury’s select board voted unanimously on Feb. 16 to abolish a single-sewer-rate system in exchange for a 10-tier rate system based on usage. The minimum payment to use the system will be $400 per quarter. Above that the rate paid is tied to the number of gallons used. The highest rate, tier 9, charges 0.057 cents per gallon for a usage range of 210,001 to 270,000 gallons.
Tisbury’s rate since 2017 had been 0.041 cents per gallon across the board.
“Fortunately we only have 138 users, which is a good thing and a bad thing,” Wastewater Superintendent Jared Meader told the board at a hearing held before the vote. “The bad thing is fewer users, greater costs. The good thing is it was easy for me to try to look at individuals and try to figure out how is this going to affect them. Is it unreasonable in how it affects them? And what are ways that we can maybe offset some of those concerns?”
Meader came up with a lower rate for seniors, disabled veterans, and for municipal usage. That tier-10 rate is 0.035 cents per gallon.
Meader said he expected to take some community heat for raising the rates. “I was expecting to be burned at the stake for this,” he said. Despite his fears, he added, “So far it seems to be received very well.”
“It’s a public hearing, so you could still be burned at the stake,” select board chair Jeff Kristal said.
When Meader asked if the board had any question about the new fee schedule, select board members Roy Cutrer and Larry Gomez said they spoke with Meader individually, and had no questions.
Kristal asked about the permanent privilege fees.
Meader explained these were fees only for new applicants to the system.
“Anybody who’s currently on the system does not have to pay the privilege fee because they paid a betterment,” Meader said.
A potential example Meader gave was a home with a failed septic system that needs an emergency connection to the sewer system.
“Unfortunately, we can’t assign them a betterment, or we’d have to go through and recalculate everything and issue refunds,” Meader said. “So the common practice in the field is we do a permanent privilege fee.”
Former sewer advisory board member Josh Goldstein said he had “no objections” to the new fee schedule.
“With COVID and everything, the enterprise fund that runs this organization certainly has suffered,” Goldstein said. “I hope we have a better year, and that restaurants and everybody kicks in, and next year we can talk about reductions. That rarely happens, but one can hope.”
Goldstein asked about folks who already made connections but paid no betterment fee. He also asked about Tisbury paying its share. The Mansion House, a Vineyard Haven hotel owned and operated by Goldstein and his family, recently paid $21,400 to settle the illegal pumping of 15,000 to 25,000 gallons per day of groundwater into the town’s sewer system.
In response to Goldstein, Meader said town properties are attached to the system, and the town is billed for them, the comfort station included.
Meader said users who have connected to the system but not paid will be addressed.
Meader later told The Times such users will be handled through collections done by the town’s finance department. He described them as calculated but unpaid parts of the betterment.
Vineyard Haven property owner Les Leland said rates in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs were cheaper because they have more users. Leland asked if more users were planned for Tisbury’s system.
Kristal said the system was built “to prohibit growth within the community,” however the town has an eye toward adding users in the B2 district.
Meader said the town is “actively” engaged in developing a comprehensive wastewater management plan (CWMP), a prerequisite to expansion. Part of the CWMP is a needs assessment. This will determine where Tisbury’s wastewater is headed.
“We’ll determine how are we going to get there — whether through innovative and alternative systems, whether it be centralized sewer, or even cluster systems,” Meader said.
Meader said Oak Bluffs user base dwarfs Tisbury’s.
“You mentioned Oak Bluffs, they’ve got over 700 users,” he said. “So their costs are greatly lower than ours. They also only bill annually.”
Meader said Tisbury bills quarterly “to try to offset that burden a little bit.” Meader added he has been looking at monthly billing as a possibility.
There’s a budgeted surplus of $75,000 for the coming year, Meader said, and he expressed hope more money could be eked out of the budget and that rates could be adjusted again next year in light of that. However, he balanced those hopes against possible upgrades and other infrastructure work.
He also pointed out the wastewater department has been able to clear up a lot of old debt.
When he arrived at his position, he said, there were over $300,000 worth of uncollected bills. He described those bills as “a big impact” for a 138-user system.
“We’ve collected most of that,” he said.