YARMOUTH, Maine — The Yarmouth Town Council is considering implementing sewer fees.
The fees, a political third rail, were discussed broadly during a Town Council workshop Sept. 5. No votes were taken, but the issue is gaining support from a growing number of councilors.
The discussion began with a review of a report written by Town Engineer Steve Johnson, who had been directed by the council in August to research the topic. Johnson found that Yarmouth and Old Orchard Beach are the only towns in southern Maine that do not assess fees for their sewer systems.
Elsewhere, residents pay an average of $564 a year for sewer service. The highest average fee is Cape Elizabeth at $791 per year and the lowest is Brunswick at $353.
Each year, the town’s Waste Water Department spends about $1.4 million, according to the report, which is paid for through tax revenue. The department’s capital budget is underfunded by as much as $400,000 each year.
Johnson’s report presents four options for imposing fees: a flat rate, metered use, tiered use or a combination.
For a flat-rate system, all sewer users would pay the same price. The report estimates yearly fees at $338, about $226 less than the regional average.
Under a metered system, fees would reflect actual use of the service. Residents would likely pay much less than businesses, which generally generate more wastewater. If that plan were implemented, residents would pay an estimated average of $277 a year, or about $287 less than the regional average.
A tiered-rate system would be similar to a flat rate, but with three categories. Customers who generate less than 2,000 cubic feet of sewage per year would pay an annual rate of $69.
An average user — less than 8,000 cubic feet — would pay $277 a year. A large user — more than 375,000 cubic feet — would pay $11,137 a year, according to the report.
Councilor Leslie Hyde said after the meeting that she is leaning toward supporting sewer fees in Yarmouth, and she believes that there is growing support among the rest of the councilors. She isn’t certain, however, which payment system is best.
A flat rate might be easier to implement and cheaper, because it won’t rely on the installation of meters, she said, but a tiered rate might be the most optimal. Businesses such as North Yarmouth Academy and the Visitor’s Center at Exit 17 of Interstate 295, for instance, generate much more waste than residents and should pay accordingly, Hyde added.
The subject of sewer fees has been debated several times in recent years, but it has always faced strong opposition from residents and on the council, Hyde said. This time, however, councilors are moving toward adopting fees, because of the tough revenue outlook facing the town from the decline of Wyman Station.
In its heydey, Wyman Station constituted about 60 percent of Yarmouth’s tax base. Now, that share has dwindled to about 5 percent.
“[Wyman Station] afforded us the ability to not have transfer station fees or sewer fees,” Hyde said. “Now that’s it’s winding down, we now need to look at two things: increasing business in town and finding additional sources of revenue. It just seems that sewer fees, which are user-based fees, might make some sense.”
Vice Chairman Randall Bates said he isn’t so sure.
“I’m on the fence,” Bates said. “I’m not completely convinced it’s the right thing to do for the town, but the town needs to raise revenue and this is clearly one way to do it.
“We are taking the right approach in terms of going slowly, deliberately and gathering all the available information,” he said.
Bates said its the second time the question of sewer fees has come up during his three years on the council. The general support for fees among councilors this year is starkly different from three years ago, he said, when fees were rejected 6-1. Now, sentiment is nearly reversed.
“I know a lot of my co-councilors have said, ‘Yes, this is great. We should go forward.’ I’m not as quick to jump into the sewer as they are,” Bates joked, adding that the notion of sewer fees was overwhelmingly unpopular with constituents three years ago, and suggesting they are probably just as unpopular with constituents now.
“We might be at a point on the council where we have to make the tough decision,” he said.
The subject will be discussed again at the next regular Town Council meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Log Cabin, 196 Main St.