June 23, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
After holding water rates steady for the first year as promised under Town of Hingham ownership of the Weir River Water System, the Hingham Select Board -- acting in their role as Board of Water Commissioners -- approved last night a 10 percent rate increase for Fiscal Year 2022, effective July 1. Hingham acquired the system on July 31, 2020 following an affirmative Town Meeting vote.
The average impact of a 10 percent increase on residential customers on their quarterly bills will be roughly $16.84, based on a Fiscal 2021 average bill of $168.36, or about $185.20 with the increase.
The average commercial water bill will increase from the current average $331.56 quarterly bill to about $364.72, or a roughly $33.16 quarterly increase.
The commissioners met remotely Tuesday night with other town officials and WRWS Supt. Russell Tierney to explain why the increase is necessary and that the proposal represented less of a hike than was historically requested under Aquarion Water Company ownership. There were no questions from the audience.
This increase is in accordance with expectations and communications the town shared with ratepayers in the years leading up to municipal ownership of the water system -- "that rates would increase by 10 percent every three years," Select Board Chair Joseph Fisher pointed out. He noted that there were no increases in water rates in 2020 and 2021, so Fiscal 2022 represents the third year.
"During earlier discussions, there was talk about lower and slower increases [than under prior ownership], but not that there would be no increases," Fisher continued.
"An increase is necessary to support ongoing water operations and capital improvements," including repairing and maintaining the aging water system infrastructure.
Water System Transition and Evaluation Committee Chair James Taylor noted that many residential water bills were higher than normal with so many people working from home during the pandemic.
"It's difficult to foresee what next year will look like for folks, but there's a likelihood that they won't use quite as much water," he said.
On the other hand, because so many businesses were closed during much of the past year, commercial ratepayers overall used less water than normal and will likely use more now that many have reopened.
A cost of service study is underway and also a capital master plan. "Over time we hope to reduce discolored water incidents and unaccounted for water, which all customers are paying for," Asst. Town Administrator Michelle Monsegur said. Making water bills easier to read and understand is another goal.
Hingham Select Board member William Ramsey asked a few questions based on comments citizens made to him when they learned of the proposed rate hike, including how an increase would benefit WRWS customers.
As one example, Tierney said, "We need to make capital improvements to better clean the system, which will improve water quality."
Echoing another question from a citizen, Ramsey asked if a commitment could be made that there would not be another increase before the next three-year cycle is up.
"That's a little tough, because until we have a capital improvement plan in place [which is in the works], it's hard to tell," Tierney said. "We want to be proactive in our planning, because repairs that are planned cost less than emergency work."
Taylor explained that part of the plan for the WRWS is "to build up some financial reserves to provide more rate stabilization to customers moving forward."
While the three-year rate increase plan is built in the WRWS model, Taylor was reluctant to make any promises. "If something major needs to be fixed unexpectedly, we would need to do so, and that would be at the ratepayers' expense." While no guarantees can be offered on the frequency of future proposed rate increases, Fisher noted that there is at least one guarantee of another sort that he could provide. "The WRWS [and board of commissioners] have no hidden agenda," he said.
In other business at the meeting, former Water Company Acquisition Study Committee Chair Jonathan Asher was appointed as historian to the Board of Water Commissioners for the purpose of preparing and filing a report regarding the Town of Hingham’s acquisition of the water company, on a volunteer basis.
"This was an historic process for the town and one of its largest acquisitions," Town Administrator Tom Mayo said, noting that documenting all that was involved was initially suggested by former Selectman Paul Healey, "for posterity's sake."
Looking ahead, Mayo will submit later this year a proposed Fiscal 2023 WRWS budget to the Board of Water Commissioners and the WRWS Citizens Advisory Board for their consideration, with public meetings to be held in December and January.
The Hingham Advisory Committee will consider the budget proposal and make its recommendation prior to the Hingham April 2022 Town Meeting, which will vote on the recommended budget.
"We made a lot of claims going into the acquisition, and we're starting to see the benefits of local ownership," Mayo said. "This is an exciting time being in the nascent stages, with everything going as planned or better."