The audience was small — just a handful of people — but directors of the Bristol County Water Authority got an earful when they held a public hearing on a plan to raise water rates held Thursday night at the Mt. Hope High School cafeteria.
From the timing of the request to the need for the money to the water authority’s overall plan, there wasn’t much picked apart or dissected by the few audience members who spoke, including several town councilors from Bristol and Barrington, two retirees and Bristol Rep. Raymond Gallison. No public officials from Warren attended the meeting.
“With this meeting tonight, to me, you’re the Grinches that stole Christmas,” said Rep. Gallison.
“Look at the ability of people to pay in the Bristol County area. They can’t afford it.”
Added Bristol resident James Ferreira:
“You’re killing the seniors. Me and my wife, we can’t continue to afford these increases. We can’t.”
Both were referring to a plan by the authority to raise rates 12 percent this coming year, with yearly 4 percent increases to follow over the next four years. That 28 percent increase actually translates into an overall hike of 31 percent, given compounding over the five-year life of the increases.
Authority executive director Pam Marchand said the increases are needed for many reasons, the first of which is ensuring Bristol County has a reliable backup source of water; namely, a connection to Pawtucket’s system at an estimated cost of $20 million. Money would also go to pay down debt, modernize the authority’s computer systems, and keep a healthy reserve balance as required by law and by bond issuers.
People are using less water than ever, she said, leading to a downward revenue trend in recent years. In response the authority has buttoned up and reduced costs, but it’s not enough.
“We’ve been cutting to the bone,” she said. “We’ve sold everything we could sell. We’ve sold vehicles, pumps, motors, whatever we can sell, we’ve gotten rid of. We have to invest in our infrastructure; it’s gotten past the point that we need to do this work.”
But several audience members seemed unconvinced, including Mr. Ferreira.
He questioned the authority’s need for the consultant who helped the organization plan a financial strategy to update infrastructure, mostly because one of the recommendations was to do do away with the long-standing senior discount.
“If you came to me and said what should we do with the senior discount, I would have told you to keep it and save all that money that you would have spent on the consultant” telling you to get rid of it.
Ms. Marchand, though, defended the senior discount phase out, which will begin in 2015 and be totally phased out by 2018. Meanwhile, a new “lifeline” discount will be introduced that will lower residents’ rates if they conserve.
Audience members also took issue with the timing of the authority’s proposed rate increases.
The BCWA’s fiscal year starts March 1, so any rate adjustments are usually completed in February. But this year, board members plan to vote on a “rate adjustment on Wednesday, Jan. 9, six days after a second public hearing is held at Warren Town Hall (at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3).
Audience member Bill DeWitt, a member of the Barrington Town, said that’s too quick, and would undo any goodwill the authority has tried to engender since hiring Ms. Marchand and trying to improve the reputation and community outreach of the unpopular utility.
“As positive an accomplishment as (the community program) is, you’re going to lose all that you gain by jamming (a rate increase) through” to accommodate vacations, he said.