Town continues litigation with Marlborough over treatment facility costs
By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter
NORTHBOROUGH — A “typical” residential customer in Northborough will see a daily increase of $.06 in their town water bill after new rate changes take effect this year according to a consultant.
Sewer rates, meanwhile, will not increase for fiscal year (FY) 2022 as Northborough continues litigation with Marlborough over its obligations to the city-owned water treatment facility it also uses.
The water rates’ residential base charge will increase by $1, and there will be a volumetric increase of five percent, Director of Public Works Scott Charpentier said during a presentation of a study of the water and sewer rates during an Aug. 23 Board of Selectmen meeting.
Consultant Dave Fox later offered his estimate on what that will mean for a typical consumer.
Increase in usage prompts rate change
Charpentier said the town purchases its water from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). During the pandemic, he said the authority’s large users didn’t require as much water while communities like Northborough used much more water than they usually do. That means Northborough’s percentage of overall use increased.
Typically, an increase ranges between four to eight percent. Charpentier said that, this year, the town realized a 24 percent increase from the MWRA.
To help overcome the increase, the town transferred money from its fund balance during Town Meeting.
Charpentier said the town opted to draw down its fund balance instead of passing the cost onto ratepayers, in the form of what would have been a 12 percent rate increase without factoring in inflation.
“Good financial decisions resulted in it being a lighter impact on the ratepayers,” Charpentier said.
Litigation leaves officials ‘essentially in a holding pattern’
As it increased water rates, Northborough is not proposing an increase in its sewer rates. According to that aforementioned rate study, Northborough’s “sewer-only” flat rate is $220 per-quarter. Its tier one quarterly charge for a volume between zero and 2,000 cubic feet is $119.07.
Charpentier said that the town is in litigation with the City of Marlborough, where Northborough’s sewage discharges at the Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP).
Marlborough upgraded the plant several years ago and began billing Northborough at rates which are charged to its “outside-City retail users,” the study noted.
“This is clearly unfair as Northborough discharges directly to the WWTP and makes no use of the City’s retail sewers or billing and administrative systems,” the study said.
“That litigation is not completed yet,” Charpentier said. “We’re essentially in a holding pattern waiting for actions by the court to realize what and where our assessment from the City of Marlborough is going to lie.”
The study says that Northborough’s projected sewer expenses are complicated because there isn’t an inter-municipal agreement with Marlborough.
Additionally, it said there are questions about Northborough’s responsibility when it comes to its share of the $30 million WWTP upgrade and expansion bonds. The study said the answers to those questions depend on how much capacity the town will have in the plant.
A portion of the upgrades were funded through a grant, which Marlborough believes only goes toward its share of the costs, the study said.
The consultants are assuming that the Town of Northborough may now be responsible for up to 50 percent of the new WWTP debt service. The study said that Marlborough began paying on a $1.2 million loan in FY 2011 and $19.99 million on a second Water Pollutant Abatement Trust loan in FY 2013.
The consultants wrote that it was “unclear” if/when the town may have to reimburse the city on its share of past loan payments. If any back payment is made, it would be from sewer reserves, the study said.
“We have assumed that approximately $3.87 million may be due to Marlborough in FY 2022,” the study said.
New rates to take effect this fall
Northborough sent a mailing to its water and sewer customers after a public hearing before the Water and Sewer Commission on Aug. 24.
The new rates will go into effect on or about Oct. 1, according to Charpentier.