More than they asked for: Water rates up 13%, sewer up 10%

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Water and wastewater director Vicki Halmen showed a map identifying watermain breaks

IPSWICH — Water and wastewater department officials left pleasantly surprised. Rate-payers, on the other hand, may not be so enamored after the select board voted 3-2 to increase water and sewer rates.

Department director Vicki Halmen initially asked for a 10% water increase and a five percent sewer rate increase. Instead, she left with 13% and 10% hikes.

Water commissioner Jim Engel said it was the first time he has seen the select board raise rates more than the requested amount.

Linda Alexson and Nishan Mootafian voted against the higher-than-asked-for rates.

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“These water rates are unsustainable,” said resident Keri MacRae, who attended the meeting. “You’re putting all that onus on the water-payers. Enough is enough,” she added.

Resident Joseph McGowan was also worried about the increase and the potential cost of other projects. “What’s the plan for the town, and what’s sustainable for the taxpayer here?” he asked.

The price hikes are needed to catch up after years of neglecting infrastructure needs, Halmen told the meeting. Her presentation is embedded below.

At her first rates hearing with the board on Feb. 8, Halmen projected prices would increase by 10% for the next five years, at least.

However, Selectperson Willy Whitmore noted the 10% hike was down from last year’s estimate of 13%. The higher increase could be used to get a start on upgrades before other large projects in the schools and public safety departments come to voters for approval in coming years, he argued.

Halmen said if water rates increased by 13% a year for four cycles, there would be no annual increase in fiscal year 2026, which starts July 1, 2025.

“Is that realistic?” asked select board chair Linda Alexson.

Halmen replied it was — if budget projects hold steady. She added that the water department would have around $2 million to use.

Selectperson Kerry Mackin agreed with the approach but said she wouldn’t agree to spending that caused environmental degradation in local rivers and streams. She singled out the proposed Lynch Well on Linebrook Road as one example.

Water infrastructure

Halmen said around quarter of the town’s water pipes were installed in the 1800s, half dates to the early 1900s, and the remainder is more recent. There are around 100 miles of water pipes in town.

“The challenge is daunting,” she said of the program to modernize the system. Problems faced by the department include leaks and breaks, Halmen added.

“We don’t know where the leaks are. If we did, we would fix them,” she said. “Breaks are easy. They explode. The water comes out, and you fix them.”

To date, it has cost around $1 million a mile to replace pipes, Halmen said. However, the department is also required to pay for road repaving after the work is done.

Halmen said of the $3.7 million spent on High Street, around $1 million was on road repair.

Mackin asked if the infrastructure would be moved to street shoulders. Halmen replied the road would still have to be dug up to connect buildings on the far side of the street. In some areas, the shoulders are not wide enough, she added.

Engel said a recent report showed 21 miles of water mains had a “high to very high likelihood of failure.”

“Vicki’s description of the situation as ‘daunting’ is pretty much on point,” he said.

Sewer

The sewer system is not as old, but failure there would be catastrophic, Halmen said. It was built in the 1950s and 60s and is in need of repair, she added.

If rates were to increase by the larger amounts, Alexson asked that the extra money could be used to pay off debts to save money on interest. “I’m looking at the interest on some of these numbers. and it’s astounding,” she said.

“It’s something to consider,” Halmen replied. However, as an engineer, she left borrowing up to the finance department. However, she added that she would discuss the matter with finance director Sarah Johnson.

She also noted that municipal loan repayments work like mortgages, in which the early years see the interest paid off before the principal is tackled.

In response to public concerns about the cost of town and school projects, Whitmore said the town’s strategic planning working group laid out a possible work schedule. “We’re not making any of these decisions in a vacuum,” he said.

Calling the costs “very concerning,” McGowan said, “At some point, the amount of money we’re throwing at stuff is unsustainable.”

“We’re trying to be very careful about how money is being spent,” replied selectperson Tammy Jones. But, she added, there is an opportunity to save in the long run with water rates.

Rate structures

To encourage lower use in summer, the water department charges a higher rate between May 1 and Sept. 30. That will now be $19.07 for 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons.

On average, a typical household of four will pay an extra $8.70 a month for water and $4 for sewer, Halmen said.

Alexson noted other water-rate structures were discussed by the select board. One of those is an “ascending block” system, in which water gets progressively more expensive as more is used.

Engle acknowledged that the water sub-committee was late with a proposal. “We haven’t met your timeline, but we haven’t forgotten it either,” he said.