NEW HAVEN – About 75 people crowded into the New Haven City Council chambers Tuesday for a hearing on a proposed sewer rate increase.
Several residents asked why the city was not applying the increase incrementally over the next few years, which would make it easier on those living on a fixed income. And several more told horror stories of raw sewage floating in their basements, yards and streets during heavy rainfall.
After more than three hours of public comment, the council voted unanimously to increase the rates by 42 percent.
The issue will still require a third vote at the next meeting and must be published, Mayor Terry McDonald said. The new rates will become effective 30 days after that, he said.
The increase would amount to $22.29 a month on a basic bill, said Brenda Adams, the city’s clerk-treasurer. A customer using 5,000 gallons of water a month - sewage rates are calculated by water usage - would pay $75.35 a month. Currently, that same customer pays $53.06 a month, Adams said.
Although the city has incurred several increases from Fort Wayne City Utilities in the past eight years, those hikes have not been passed on to residents, McDonald said.
New Haven owns its own conveyance system, but pumps its wastewater to City Utilities for treatment and is charged a bulk rate.
The rate increase is necessary to pay for work the city is doing, including replacing old sewer lines and decreasing the infiltration of storm water into the wastewater system, said Keith Schlegel, the city’s director of engineering.
The amount of wastewater pumped to Fort Wayne during wet weather events is significantly higher than normal due to infiltration, he said, which causes combined sewer overflows and increased treatment costs.
“We are conducting smoke testing, including catch basins and been relining pipes to reduce the cost of rehabilitation,” he said, “but there are still some pipes we have to replace.”
A majority of the infiltration can be blamed on faulty lateral connections, leaky pipes and sump pumps and downspouts that are connected to the city’s system, he said.
It’s an ongoing battle, Utility Superintendent Dave Jones said.
During Thursday’s rainfall the city pumped 3 million gallons of wastewater to Fort Wayne for treatment, Jones said.
“We had 2.1 inches of rain which caused a few residents to call and report that they had sewage backups in their basements,” Jones said. “In addition we also discharged 1.5 million gallons into the Maumee River.”
Oliver Fitzwater who lives on Norland Lane, wanted some assurance that high sewer rates would solve the sewage backups.
“I can look out my front window and see raw sewage running down the street,” Fitzwater said. After heavy rain, there is raw sewage coming up through manholes, he said.
“I’m not denying that we have problems,” McDonald said.
Another resident, Tim Doyle, said the city needed to take care of the problems before moving on to newer projects or approving more development.
“I’m not interested in moving the community forward if you don’t take care of those already living here,” he said.
Michelle Bates said she did not know what she would do if the rates increased by 42 percent.
“I am on disability and on a fixed income,” she said. “With this increase, my water and sewer bill will be more than my electric or gas bills – 15 percent of my income.”
The last sewer rate increase was in 2006, when the council unanimously approved increasing sewer rates by 60 percent to help pay for a $7.9 million project to finish separating the city’s sewers.