YARMOUTH — The Town Council continued to soft-sell the possibility of sewer fees on Thursday, and, for the first time in a month and a half of discussion, it encountered light opposition.
Sewer fees have been a topic for the council for three consecutive meetings beginning in mid-August and the subject is expected to appear on the agendas of future meetings, as well. The council also raised the possibility of charging annual fees for use of the transfer station.
During the past two meetings, the council sat through nearly identical presentations by Town Engineer Steve Johnson, who laid out several options for imposing fees for sewer users, businesses and nonprofits that use the town’s sewer system.
Johnson’s first presentation, which was held during a council workshop, wasn’t televised, so it was repeated Thursday, Sept. 19, during a regular meeting to give home viewers an opportunity to see it, Town Manager Nat Tupper said.
Two former town councilors spoke in opposition to fees, including Carl Winslow, who argued that the town’s sewer system should be funded in the same manner as its schools, library and Police Department.
“‘Community’ is the only way to go,” Winslow said. “We have communities because they share the cost of every service that’s provided to its citizens, whether they use them or not.
“I don’t use the turf field, but I voted for the bond issue because it made sense for the community.”
Former Councilor Mark Hough kept his comments succinct, suggesting that the fees are just a new form of taxation.
“Same pair of pants, different pocket,” Hough said. “Don’t pick our pocket.”
Next, Councilor Pat Thompson asked if sewer fees would reduce taxes.
Tupper said the answer isn’t simple. The money raised through sewer fees could be used for tax relief, or it could be funneled into sewer upgrades and maintenance.
He said the sewer program comprises about 5 percent of Yarmouth’s annual budget. The program is chronically underfunded by about $300,000 a year, he said, and the town’s aging pipes are in danger of failing.
Councilor David Craig said sewer fees could help shift the cost burden to some of the town’s biggest users. At present, residents are subsidizing sewer use for non-taxpaying entities, such as North Yarmouth Academy and the Maine State Visitor Information Center, he said.
Earlier in the discussion, Johnson said Yarmouth and Old Orchard Beach are the only towns in southern Maine that do not assess fees for their sewer systems. Elsewhere in the region, residents pay an average of $564 a year for service. The highest average fee is in Cape Elizabeth, at $791 per year, and the lowest is Brunswick’s $353.
Johnson presented four options for imposing fees: a flat rate, metered use, tiered use, or a combination. For a flat-rate system, all sewer users would pay an estimated $338 per year, about $226 less than the regional average.
The subject of sewer fees has been debated several times in recent years, but it has always faced strong opposition from residents and the council. This time, however, councilors are moving toward adopting fees, because of the tough revenue outlook facing the town from the decline of Wyman Station.
In its heyday, Wyman Station constituted about 60 percent of Yarmouth’s tax base. Now, that share has dwindled to about 5 percent.
The council also considered the possibility of assessing user fees for the town’s transfer station.
Tupper said vehicle stickers are already required at the transfer station as a means to indicate residency. For the purposes of discussion, Tupper floated a sticker fee of $50 a year, because the cost equates to roughly $1 per week.
“It is simply a number,” he said.
Eric Street, director of Public Works, said the $50 figure was briefly discussed during a recent meeting of the Recycling Committee, where reaction was mixed.
“On a first blush, there was some question whether $50 would fly,” Street said.
Councilor Pat Thompson left little doubt about her stance.
“I am totally against transfer station fees,” she said.
At $50 per sticker, the town could raise an estimated $75,000 a year, Tupper said.