PITTSFIELD, Maine — Years of delaying water rate increases have caught up to the town in the form of an unreliable and patched-together system in danger of total collapse.
For the approximately 1,200 ratepayers served by the Pittsfield Water Works, these problems will trigger an overall 21.4 percent rate increase if the Public Utilities Commission approves a plan OK’d Tuesday by the Town Council. The plan would increase the base rate paid by every customer from $30 every three months to $40.20 every three months, which adds up to an annual increase of $40.80. The per-gallon system of calculating rates in addition to the base rate will not change. An average four-person family in Pittsfield paid about $227 a year for water before the proposed increase, which is set to go into effect on Nov. 16.
“If we don’t make a move right now then we’re just going to wait for some catastrophic problem,” said Deputy Mayor Gary Jordan Jr. during a council debate over the rate increase Tuesday.
There was no argument, however, that the town’s water system is in dire shape.
Some of the water lines date back to the 1890s, according to Town Manager Kathryn Ruth. In a three-month period last year, there were a total of 12 ruptures, all of which required emergency repairs. In addition to hindering the safety and reliability of the system, such problems are difficult to address with the town’s scarce resources, Ruth said.
The maintenance problems, along with a trend of reduced water use in Pittsfield and new federal requirements that force the town to account for its aging system, have created a revenue gap of about $74,000 in Pittsfield Water Works’ current budget. The rate increase approved by the council Tuesday will address that problem but not other needed upgrades that may have to be funded by additional increases in the future, according to Annaleis Hafford of Olver Associates, a Winterport-based consulting firm that conducted a study of the water system’s problems.
Hafford said Pittsfield has the 10th-lowest water rates in Maine and hasn’t had a rate increase since 1999. Avoiding smaller increases over the years is part of the reason for the big jump now, she said.
“This is not something anyone wants to hear, but it’s absolutely necessary,” said Hafford. “Pittsfield needs this badly.”
Only one member of the community protested the plan, but she did so passionately. Crystal Witham of West Street said her expenses have increased in virtually every category while her income goes down.
“I need you to reconsider this increase,” said Witham. “We need to think about how this impacts our residents on fixed incomes.” As a landlord, Witham said, she provides housing for two of those residents.
“The town cannot continue to see its residents as a way to cover shortfalls,” she said.
Several councilors voiced sympathy for Witham and others in her situation, but said the risks associated with doing nothing are too great. They voted unanimously to ask the Public Utilities Commission to approve the rate increase.