New fiscal year brings water and sewer rate adjustments in Hagerstown

June 30, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Hagerstown water rates chart
Hagerstown water rates chart

Sunday begins fiscal year 2012-13, and with it comes a new round of city of Hagerstown water and sewer rate adjustments.

City residents will see 5-percent increases for water and sewer, also called wastewater, while Washington County residents who use the city’s services can expect to see a 6.5-percent hike for water and a 3-percent jump for wastewater.

The increases also apply to the quarterly fixed fees attached to various sizes of meters, ranging from 5/8-inch through 10 inches, which are calculated with usage into one charge.

The majority of residential meters are 5/8-inch or 3/4-inch. For those who pay on a monthly basis, fixed fees for meters are one-third of the quarterly charge.

It marks the start of the fourth of a five-year schedule of water and sewage rate adjustments, approved by the Hagerstown City Council in September 2009, that were necessary to keep the utility funds self-sustaining while generating additional revenue to help pay down the debt service on several important projects, city Director of Utilities Michael Spiker wrote in an email.

Levying smaller annual increases has allowed city officials to address several much-needed infrastructure improvements to its systems, city Administrator Bruce Zimmerman wrote in an email.

“We have relied on smaller annual rate increases in our utilities to maintain strong finances and to avoid the large utility rate increases some communities are forced to implement when they face major infrastructure (improvements) and operating costs,” Zimmerman wrote. “We have a good team of staff, engineers and financial advisors that develop the plans we use in our operations, capital improvements and our finances.”

In the upcoming year, a city resident who uses a total of 13,000 gallons each of water and wastewater per quarter with 5/8-inch meters would owe a total of $95.40, coming out to be about $381.60 for the year.

For comparison, an out-of-city user would have to pay $181.95 for the same usage and meter over three months, adding up to an annual cost of about $727.80.

Recent projects

While electric rates will remain flat over the next 12 months, the ongoing rate increases for water and sewage have helped to offset several multimillion-dollar projects completed in recent years, according to information provided to the city council earlier this year.

The city completed construction of a pair of water tanks in Hagerstown’s West End in 2009 and 2011, respectively, including upgrades to a supporting pump station, that carried a price tag of $5.4 million. The project was funded by about $3.3 million in leftover federal stimulus money, with the remainder coming from an interest-free loan through the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Major mainline and electrical improvements also have been made at one of the city’s two water treatment plants, R.C. Willson Water Plant in Williamsport, at a cost of $4.5 million.

That project — funded again through stimulus money, an interest-free loan from the MDE and a $300,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant — included the installation of about 300 feet of two 36-inch water transmission mains, associated valves and a backup generator that can operate the facility in the event of a major power outage.

“The Water Division is now in full compliance with the Maryland Department of the Environment Finished Water Covered Reservoir rules,” Spiker wrote in his update to city council.

With a completion goal of 2016, city utility staff also are about halfway through the process of replacing 28,000 residential water meters with new radio-read meters that will allow for better billing accuracy, a reduction in unallocated water and a reduction in customer billing complaints related to human error, Spiker wrote.

The Hagerstown City Council in mid-June approved $897,166 to purchase the new meters, which ultimately will be paid through future operational fees.

Other ongoing water system projects include planning for improvements to maintain compliance with MDE’s Disinfected Byproduct II and Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, Spiker wrote.

About $350,000 is budgeted for the upcoming year to address further rehabilitation and main-line replacement projects through leak detection, hydrant and valve programs, as well as through coordinated efforts with county and state projects.

Along with four pump stations, R.C. Willson, built in 1927, and the city’s second plant, Wm. Breichner Water Treatment Plant, which was completely rebuilt in 1995, services about 90,000 users in Hagerstown and several surrounding communities.

Refining operations

At the city’s wastewater treatment plant, utility staff have continued to refine operations in accordance with Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) initiatives, including additional flow channels and upgrades in the filtration and disinfection systems, according to Spiker.

As of Jan. 31, the sewage plant had operated 50 consecutive months without a Discharge Monitoring Report violation from the state, Spiker wrote, and it continues to run within all operational guidelines required by the MDE, like regulations related to the Chesapeake Bay initiatives.

The plant, built in the 1920s and continually updated with 29 pump stations, has cut discharges of nitrogen to 3 mg/L and phosphorus to 0.3mg/L, Spiker wrote.

“These improvements have allowed the MDE to re-evaluate our rated capacity, and beginning in January 2011, our permit (has reflected) an increase to 10.5 MGD (million gallons daily) for rated capacity at the treatment plant,” he wrote.

Keeping discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus under control also is a key component of MDE’s Watershed Implementation Plan, which requires all municipalities across the state to attempt to cut down on pollutants that ultimately reach Chesapeake Bay.

Work also is continuing on a citywide inflow and infiltration project, costing around $3.2 million, to remove nonsystem-related flow in the wastewater collection system from extraneous sources by utilizing cured-in-place liners within the main lines, point repairs of broken pipes and grouting of manholes, according to Spiker.

“Removing this flow from the treatment process lowers expenditures at the wastewater treatment plant and allows for the recapture of allocation,” Spiker wrote.

The last of leftover stimulus money has gone into the project, as well as funding from a $800,000 Chesapeake Bay Restoration grant and another $827,440 in an interest-free loan from the MDE.

Moving forward, wastewater plant staff will continue to refine processes related to its ENR initiative as well as work to secure funding to alleviate an issue with algae getting into plant filters.

The city’s wastewater services reach approximately 60,000 customers, inside and outside the city.

Reliable service, competitive rates

Municipalities across the nation are wrestling with the need to address aging infrastructure and compliance regulations.

“It is an expensive proposition requiring funding from many different sources,” Spiker wrote.

But compared to other area utilities, Hagerstown’s rates are very competitive, according to Spiker.

Electricity rates over the past year ran about $13 cheaper or more than other area providers at about 800 kilowatt hours, according to a comparison chart of fiscal year 2011-12 rates provided by Spiker.

For water, Hagerstown’s service for in-city customers was cheaper by more than $30 per quarter for 13,000 gallons used, according to the chart. The closest competitor was Smithsburg’s rate of $54.37, compared to Hagerstown at $23.18.

Out-of-the city Hagerstown water rates were second only to Frederick County’s rates per quarter, $57.24 to $54.75, in the past year, the chart shows.

The wastewater rates for city customers at 13,000 gallons used per quarter were cheaper than Frederick, Funkstown, Smithsburg, Cumberland, Frostburg and Winchester, Va., according the chart. Only Martinsburg, W.Va., had cheaper sewage rates for in-city users.

Outside the city, Frederick County and Martinsburg sewage rates were the only two that were cheaper than services provided by Hagerstown, the chart shows.

Zimmerman said maintaining infrastructure enables the city to provide reliable service at competitive rates for customers, all the while supporting ever-increasing environmental regulations.

“We have consistently upgraded our operations to address statewide MDE requirements on environmental compliance, often in advance of many public utilities in Maryland,” he said. “We have been able to do this because of our financial and operational management of our utilities.”

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