VEAZIE, Maine — Customers of the Veazie Sewer District will see higher quarterly sewer bills as a result of trustees’ unanimous vote Tuesday night to increase fees as a way of covering operating costs and debt costs — while replenishing reserve accounts that had essentially been depleted.
To generate the additional revenues needed, trustees voted 3-0 to increase sewer users’ fixed fees by $16 per quarter to $41 per quarter, effective April 1.
They decided, however, to keep the usage fee portion of customers’ bills at the current $4.16 per 100 cubic feet and to keep the annual assessment collected from the town of Veazie at the current $150,000.
The pain, however, might not be long-lasting, trustee James Parker, who serves as the board’s treasurer, said during a public hearing that preceded the vote.
He said that once the reserve accounts are at the level they are supposed to be, and the district has enough funds on hand to make payments toward its debt, the trustees should be in a position to reduce the fixed fees, do away with the town assessment or both.
In addition, staffing changes, a reclassification of the treatment plant and other measures will help drive operating costs down.
The trustees have been considering a rate increase since at least last August, when the district’s auditor reported that the utility was running out of money during a trustees meeting.
At that time, the auditor pegged annual operating costs at about $525,000 and revenues at roughly $475,000, resulting in a $50,000 gap. Trustees also learned that most of the money that had been set aside for long-term needs, such as equipment replacement, had been used for operating costs.
Former plant Superintendent Gary Brooks, who had worked for the district for 23 years, resigned at the end of that meeting. Plant operator Travis Day and office manager Tammy Olson later followed suit. Brooks and Day were full-time employees, while Olson worked 20 hours a week.
The wave of resignations left the utility with a single full-time employee. Day-to-day operations currently are being managed through a $14,000-a-month contract with consultant Woodard & Curran.
Public comment during Tuesday night’s rate hearing — as well as a hearing on proposed charter changes that followed — was heavily dominated by a group of opponents composed mostly of former employees, their spouses and former trustees.
In recent months, the group has been monitoring meetings and has requesting dozens of documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Members have complained that their questions are not being answered and have questioned some of the dollar figures used by the current board of trustees in recent months.
Former superintendent Brooks and his wife, Cathy, Olson and resident Joan Perkins were the most vocal, asking numerous questions about the district’s budget and criticizing trustees for not providing them information at the level of detail they wanted to see.
Cathy Brooks and Perkins both turned up wearing the “No Liars” T-shirts that they have worn at recent trustees’ meeting.
During the hearing, Joan Perkins — whose husband, Town Councilor Brian Perkins, is a former trustee — quizzed trustees over why they chose to raise the additional revenue through fixed fees rather than the usage fee, which varies depending on how much water is used.
That, she argued, put a disproportionate burden on elderly customers on fixed incomes and those living in one- or two-person households as opposed to families with children that use much more water.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” she said.
Perkins also demanded a breakdown of the contractual fees that Woodard & Curran is being paid to operate the plant until the trustees determine what level of staffing the plant will have in the future.
Cathy Brooks wanted to see pie charts, something she noted Parker had demanded during the last rate increase hearing two years ago, before Parker was elected a trustee.
Also Tuesday, district voters approved a series of charter changes in a 13-7 secret ballot vote. The changes will align the trustee nomination and election process with that of the town council and will allow all Veazie voters to vote on sewer district matters.