Williamsport sewer bills could rise by as much as $42 a month

September 09, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

WILLIAMSPORT -- Sewer bills in Williamsport could increase by as much as $42 a month as the town finances an extensive emergency upgrade to its sewer system, town officials said Monday.

The rate increase is a mandatory condition to receive a $3.6 million federal loan that would cover the first phases of a project that Williamsport Town Council members say the town cannot put off any longer.

"We are living on borrowed time with our sewer system," Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II said. "It could fail any time."

Engineers have estimated the complete six-phase project could cost $12 million to $15 million, McCleaf said. It would include measures to stop the inflow and infiltration of storm water into the sewer system, rehabilitation or replacement of sewer lines and manholes, and upgrades to pump stations, he said.


News of the possible rate increase caused alarm for many Williamsport residents who live on fixed incomes and cannot afford an extra $42 a month, landlord Charles Brown told the Council on Monday. Brown said he had at least 10 tenants who would be unable to pay a higher rate.

"It's a big chunk of money at one time, the way the economy is," Brown said.

Currently, Williamsport residents pay $5.80 per thousand gallons of water used and $6.18 per thousand gallons of water treated. That means for a household using 3,000 gallons of water a month, the water and sewer bill could more than double.

Council members stressed that a $42-a-month increase is a worst-case scenario. A United States Department of Agriculture representative said the town would have to increase its rates by that much if it borrowed the full $3.6 million through a USDA rural development program, but the town does not yet know exactly how much the project will cost, McCleaf said. Engineers should have a more accurate estimate within the next 30 days, he said.

Assistant Mayor Monty R. Jones said the council could lessen the impact of any rate increase by lowering property taxes, because the sewer system is currently being funded in part through tax dollars.

The USDA offer includes a $707,000 grant, but officials are working with local representatives to seek aid from other sources that will not need to be repaid, McCleaf said.

Maryland Del. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, who was at Monday's council meeting, suggested that the council apply for a grant from a Chesapeake Bay restoration group. A sewer failure in Williamsport would have dire environmental consequences, so the town might be able to get grant money from environmental groups, Serafini said.

Ideally, the town would have raised rates gradually over time to put aside money for repairs, Serafini sad.

"Lack of planning in the past has created an emergency for the group of people sitting right here," he said.

McCleaf said it was important to repair the sewer before it fails and the town is assessed fines on top of the cost of an emergency repair.

"What the council's trying to do today is be proactive and not have to pay the cost plus the fines," he said.

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