After months of debate, Yarmouth to start charging sewer fees

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YARMOUTH — After discussions that spanned the past eight months, the town is implementing sewer user fees.

The Town Council on Feb. 20 approved a hybrid, tiered-use rate structure that will charge standard users – about 70 percent of sewer-using property owners, the town estimates – $350 annually. Small users will pay an annual fee of $100, large users will pay $575, and industrial users will pay $1,150 plus a surcharge of 2 cents per cubic foot of water use greater than 21,900 cubic feet.

The council also voted to cease its septic tank pump-out program, which has pumped residents’ tanks free of charge every three years. Septic tank users will now be responsible for funding and scheduling their own pump-outs, though they will not have to pay the sewer fee. 

Sewer usage levels will be determined by measurements taken during the fourth quarter of the calendar year, when people typically use the least water.

The town hopes to raise $1 million annually from the fee, of which $300,000 will go directly to sewer maintenance. Town staff have recommended purchasing software to help facilitate the collection of fees in-house, Chairman Steve Woods said; that software is expected to cost close to $30,000.

People 70 and older will receive a 20 percent discount on the fee, and residents who qualify for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will receive a 50 percent discount. But the maximum discount allowed will be 60 percent.

Yarmouth’s move leaves Old Orchard Beach as the only municipality in southern Maine without a sewer fee, according to Woods.

The decisions regarding the fee and its rate structure – to amend the sewer ordinance, and the fees and permits ordinance, respectively – came in two votes. The fee passed 5-2, with Councilors Andrew Kittredge and David Craig objecting. The rate structure then passed unanimously.

The decision to abandon the septic tank pump-out program came in a third vote, 4-3, with Councilors Leslie Hyde, James MacLeod and Craig dissenting.

The council has yet to determine when bills will be distributed, or how often, although it’s believed they will be semi-annual, Town Manager Nat Tupper said.

Councilors reiterated the cases they’ve made in favor of the fee in the past, with Woods stressing the need to find revenue to combat the depreciation of Wyman Station, which was once worth $300 million, but when last assessed was worth just $52 million.

“We as a community have lost a quarter of a billion dollars in property value between the last 10 and 15 years,” Woods said. “I’ve been trying for five years to articulate and communicate in detail what that means, but I get it, it’s a little bit of an abstract. It’s a big power plant out on Cousins (Island), and sometimes the smoke stack is going and sometimes it’s not. … It’s hard to conceptualize.”

He added, “In some ways we’ve subsidized the quality of life and the quality of this school system based on (Wyman Station).”

Vice Chairman Randall Bates blamed former councils for failing to plan for the town’s future and said the fee could help avert a “sewer apocalypse.”

A half-dozen residents spoke during a public comment period and encouraged the council to reconsider levying the fee and eliminating septic tank services.

John Kyle, owner of Pat’s Pizza on Route 1, said he would like to have seen fees for industrial users build gradually over several years. Pat’s Pizza could pay $5,000 in sewer fees this year, according to a town estimate.

“I understand that you have to get the revenue from somewhere, but going from zero to $5,000 in one year, it’s a burden on a small business, it really is,” Kyle said. “I don’t know how many of you people are businessmen, but $5,000 added to our operating expense, that’s huge in one year.”

There was a sense among those in attendance that the fee was a bygone conclusion.

“I appear before you tonight knowing that no one who speaks against the sewer fee will make a difference,” former Town Councilor Carl Winslow said, “(but) I must give it one last try.”

Winslow said the town seems to be heading down a slippery slope.

“First the fee for the transfer station. Now the sewer fee,” he said. “What comes next?”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.