BROWNVILLE, Maine — An increase in sewer fees coupled with an increase in taxes from a recent revaluation prompted Lesley Blanchard, 37, to sign a petition along with about 100 other residents to protest a planned water rate hike.
Blanchard said there are a lot of low-income people in the community who are either on Social Security or on disability like she is and they just can’t afford another hefty increase. To prove her point, she said the last town report showed there was about $31,000 in outstanding water and sewer bills from residents who have been unable to pay previous bills.
“They hit us with everything all at once; we need some breathing room to adjust to the increase in the taxes and the increase in the sewer,” Blanchard said Monday. Town officials initially had discussed a smaller rate increase but then inched it up higher, she said. The smaller increase would have been easier to absorb, Blanchard believed.
The town filed its request for a rate increase with the Maine Public Utilities Commission this month. If the new rates go into effect, users will see an increase of about $19.98 per quarter.
Since Brownville water customers petitioned the PUC, the rate increase will be put on hold until the PUC examines the town’s logic and operational needs behind the request.
Although the validity of some signatures on the petition are in question, the board agreed not to dispute that matter to avoid the required 10-day waiting period, Town Manager Sophia Wilson said Monday.
“Our point is that we need to get the rates into effect,” she said.
Water customers have the absolute right to file a petition, which requires a greater examination of how the town arrived at the figures, she said. Town officials have been told it could take three to nine months for the PUC review, which could include a public hearing.
“I think the process is all about whether or not there’s negotiation to be reached, and I think the thing that is difficult in this process for us is that the Board of Selectmen worked very hard to try to bring in as low a rate as possible,” Wilson said. “We did that by not taking all of the allowable depreciation and contingency, which is where a lot of people would go to negotiate [a lower rate], and we’re already extremely low in those two accounts.”
The rate request is separate from a $1,715,000 project to improve the health and safety of drinking water in the Junction by upgrading water mains and the transmission of water, according to Wilson. Residents earlier this year voted to borrow up to $450,000 which will serve as the match for a $1,265,000 grant from the U.S. De-partment of Agriculture.
That upgrade work has already begun, Wilson said. Testing has been done to identify places with ledge and testing soon will begin for the backup well.
Blanchard said she understands that the town needs an increase since they haven’t had one in several years. “We realize that it has to go up somewhat to help them out with this project, but we can’t be hit with all of this at once, it’s too much,” she said.