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Council approves water rate increase

Date: 7/18/2014

AGAWAM – Water connection fees, service charges and use rates will increase for residents beginning Sept. 1.
Starting this September, residential use will increase from $1.36 to $1.90 per hundred cubic-feet for the first 4,000 cubic feet in a six month billing cycle and from $1.90 to $2.38 per hundred cubic feet for water use over 4,000 cubic-feet in a six month billing cycle. For all other users, rates will increase from $1.90 to $2.38 per hundred cubic feet of water usage.
The annual account service charge was increased from $54 to $70. New accounts will be subject to fees ranging from $375 to $1,805, depending on the type of meter purchased. Any upgrades to water meters and/or parts will be subject to current rates of materials.
The City Council approved the cost increases at its meeting on July 14. The decision comes after a water main break that took place in June 2013, where one of two connections to its water supply, which is provided by the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, failed. The event raised awareness to the need for improved connections.
“We have antiquated systems,” Council President Christopher Johnson said. “The average bill will increase $75 per year. This is the most significant increase in Agawam history.”
He explained that the current fees do not cover the actual cost of the parts and service and that the increase is equal to the actual cost to the town. The water rates were “less impacted” by raising those costs.
Councilor Joseph Mineo, chair of the Finance subcommittee, reported that the subcommittee voted in favor of the increases. “Even with the increase, Agawam is still in the bottom third of the comparison list [of surrounding communities].”
Johnson told the audience that Tighe & Bond Inc., the consultant on the issue, recommended three increases over the next six years, a “total that would’ve been significantly higher” than the increase the council proposed.
Councilor Gina Letellier said she was “initially skeptical” about raising the cost but she realized that a deficit would be created since the town is not charging residents the actual cost of the parts, eventually creating a need to raise rates “even higher than the current proposal.”
Johnson added that Christopher Golba, superintendent of the Department of Public Works, advised him that the “sewer rates are not projected to go up this year, but could potentially go up within the next two fiscal years.”
Johnson said, “Seventy to 80 percent of the increase was from improvements to the Springfield water system.”
In other action, the council approved a motion to endorse the Track Master Plan and to support the Track Exploratory Committee in its search for construction bids. The total cost of the project will be $600 to $700 million, but the amounts from the general fund and Community Preservation Act have yet to be determined.
The project would provide a complete facelift of Agawam High School’s athletic fields, which are overgrown with grass with many parts in need of upgrades. A new track, baseball diamonds, bleachers and dugouts are just some of the features that would be built.
Councilor George Bitzas, a member of the Exploratory Committee, said, “It’s a great project that should’ve been done a long time ago.”
Johnson said, “This resolution doesn’t do anything. I am just curious as to why – we spent the money, we’ve got the preliminary plan, we have the preliminary process [complete] – the mayor [Richard Cohen] didn’t put a resolution before us on building this facility. That’s the next step, this isn’t the next step.”
He continued, “What makes logical sense is – we know what the ballpark estimate is $600 to $700 million – to put the resolution on to fund building this, which includes the final drawings and construction specs.”
Johnson concluded, “Let’s get the thing on track, figure out what percentage is going to come from the general fund, what’s going to come from the CPA and get it on our agenda so we don’t waste $600,000 or $700,000 having construction specs drawn only to never fund the project.”
The council also approved a resolution submitted by the mayor to urge the Commonwealth to once again fund the Quinn Bill.
The state once paid for 50 percent of the pay increase officers received by order of the 1970 bill, known formally as the Police Career Incentive Program, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 41 Section 108L. Depending on the level of an officer’s higher education, he or she would receive a 10, 20, or 25 percent increase to his or her base rate of pay.
The town’s annual budget still provides for the incentive, as ordered by the State Joint Labor Management Committee and Gov. Deval Patrick stopped funding the bill in the state budget two years ago, according to the resolution.
Councilor Robert Rossi said, “I think, if we go back to the bargaining table, there are other ways to do this.” He called the request a “conflict” because the town isn’t taking steps within its power to find alternative means to provide incentives to officers, yet it’s asking the governor to provide funds.