South Hadley braces for jump in sewer rates over next five years

South Hadley Town Hall

South Hadley Town Hall

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2024 4:38 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Just as the citizens in the musical world of “Urinetown” paid a fee for the privilege to pee, so too do residents of South Hadley — and that fee is about to go up significantly in the coming years.

Over the next few months, the Select Board must decide how much and when to raise wastewater rates over the next five years so that by fiscal year 2029 property owners are paying a new yearly rate of $550 to use the municipal-owned sewer system, up from the current rate of $360 a year.

The board is currently exploring how much the rates will go up each year to reach that amount. Factoring into that decision is whether to wait until 2026 — after a new automated cart-based trash and recycling systems rolls out that will also cost property owners more money than they are currently paying — to start increasing wastewater rates.

“Certainly there is a scenario where we hold ourselves constant this year, but ... that might mean a bigger jump” in fiscal 2027, Town Administrator Lisa Wong said during the March 12 Select Board meeting.

Wong and Director of Public Works John Broderick will host two public hearings, one on wastewater and one on trash, on April 13 at the Senior Center to gauge residents’ needs and concerns on the changes in waste management.

Raising the rates, as Broderick explained, will bring in funds to upgrade machinery in the four 45-year-old pump stations in town. It’s difficult to source parts for the old machines, which aren’t as efficient as newer models and spit out a wetter, more expensive product to transport to a landfill, he said. But the new systems are pricey: one small pump station can range from $3 million to $9 million.

“When you have somebody able to keep the vehicles and the plant running efficiently for this long, it’s great because you can keep the rates down,” Broderick said. “But when you gotta make a change to something newer or upgrade, the costs are expensive, and we haven’t experienced that.”

Due to the costly price tag on sewer treatment work, maintaining at least $1 million in surplus funds is ideal to pay for any immediate repairs. Wong said the sewer department’s surplus dropped “precariously low” the last time the town did not raise rates.

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Select Board members who spoke at the meeting last week tentatively supported an immediate increase in wastewater rates to get money in the bank as soon as possible. Member Jeff Cyr said he looked at numbers to improve the South Hadley Wastewater Treatment Plant in Chicopee as part of the capital planning committee, and the calculations presented to the Select Board only consider the pump stations. With all the upcoming renovations required for all the facilities Cyr thinks wastewater rates should increase $50 each year starting next year.

“With an increase like that, I think it’s easier for people to budget for,” Cyr said, “I’d much rather a sewer system than a septic system because when they fail, you’re in a $25,000 to $30,000 range for a homeowner.”

Members Carol Constant and Nicole Casolari spoke about mitigating the financial impact on residents. Constant added that the previous rate increase last fiscal year from $280 to $360 was a big jump, and she’s weary of postponing the price hike to repeat the same increase. A more gradual increase is easier for many residents to handle, they said.

“I do hear that doing a big jump, like what we did, is a lot, especially for residents on fixed incomes,” Casolari said.

Residents can use a Sewer Department budget projecJtions spreadsheet on the town’s website to test different incremental price increases over the next five years, so long as the total reaches $550 a year by fiscal 2029.

“Infrastructure, like wastewater and sewer, we all own it together. So it’s all ours to try and take care of,” Cyr said.

The hearings on April 13 will begin at 9 a.m. at the South Hadley Senior Center with a discussion on the sewer rate increases and the capital improvements behind them. At 10 a.m., the hearing will turn to a discussion on the upcoming curbside trash collection changes.

The town is considering options for a new cart-based trash system next fiscal year now that a contract with Republic Services operating the green bag pay-as-you-throw service is set to expire on June 30. While negociations with Republic to continue with the company under a new cart-based system are ongoing, Wong said the town also prepares to go out to bid.

The new system, regardless of cart size or pickup frequency, will cost more than the current green bag system. The town must fund at least one trash and recycling cart for each household, adding to the upfront expenses. Since trash carts are larger and hold more material, the new system will be more expensive to operate.

Right now, residents pay a $125 annual trash fee, plus the expense of buying green bags at a grocery store.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gaz ettenet.com.