Amherst town manager seeks water, sewer rate hikes

Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2020

AMHERST — The town manager is calling for a significant increase in water and sewer rates that he says is necessary to provide money for future capital projects and to offset revenue lost from college students being sent home early this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a memo to the Town Council, Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote that he would like to see the fiscal year 2021 water rate go up by 7.7% from $3.90 per 100 cubic feet to $4.20 per 100 cubic feet, and a 15% increase in the sewer rate, from $4 per 100 cubic feet to $4.60 per j100 cubic feet.

“While I would like to be able to recommend foregoing rate increases for FY21 in the interests of buffering impacts during this time of economic stress, that option is not financially advisable for the enterprise funds,” Bockelman wrote.  

Under his plan, an average Amherst homeowner’s water bill would go up from $468 to $504, an increase of $36 per year. The average Amherst homeowner’s sewer bill would rise from $480 to $552, an increase of $72 per year.

Even with such changes, the typical combined bill would be $401 below the statewide average and lower than some neighboring communities, including Hadley, where annual bills are $1,362, and Northampton, where they are $1,576, based on a report provided by Tighe & Bond of Westfield. The cost, though, would be higher than the $1,056 paid by an average homeowner in Holyoke.

The proposed adjustments follow smaller 2.6% increases to each rate last year.

Bockelman explained in his memo that the higher rates are necessary due to a drop in water and sewer usage. Typically, the town has been seeing  2% declines each year, but this was more precipitous with the town’s three largest users, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College, sending students home in mid-March.

“The closure of the colleges and university has caused consumption to drop even more dramatically beginning in March. This problem is compounded by continuing uncertainty for the fall semester,” Bockelman wrote.

Both systems need critical repairs that will require significant capital improvements and increase annual debt service costs for each enterprise fund.

Those projects include rebuilding the Centennial water treatment plant, located in Pelham, where an $11 million project is planned beginning in fiscal year 2022, and a $7.3 million project the same year for improvements to the wastewater treatment system, including a gravity belt thickener, a device that removes water from the sludge produced.

The adjustments will allow the town to meet a projected $4.4 million water budget, which is down $95,073, or about 2%, from this year’s $4.49 million water budget, and the $4.33 million sewer budget, which is down $178,926, or about 4%, from this year’s $4.51 million sewer budget.

The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the new rates at its June 29 meeting, and if implemented, would affect meter readings taken after July 1.