Big sewer rate jump postponed

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BELLOWS FALLS — Sewer and water rates for village residents are expected to go up dramatically for the second time in less than a year, but exactly how much hasn't been decided just yet.

The Bellows Falls Village Trustees postponed voting on the exact amount Tuesday night after learning that the water and sewer department's finances are a bit confused.

The trustees deadlocked 2-2 on the issue, with Village President Deborah Wright breaking the tie and voting in favor of delaying a final decision until more information was available.

Voting in favor of the rate increase were James McAuliffe and Gary Lique; voting for the delay were Trustees Jonathan Wright and Stefan Golec, along with Wright, the village president.

The trustees agreed to a special meeting next Tuesday to go over the finances and set the rate. An increase in water rates, not as big, is also under consideration.

The original projected increase of 25 percent would have seen the average monthly bill jump from $21 to $26.24, according to Mark Johnson of RCAP Solutions, which is working with the village to try and sort out its water and sewer rates and finances. The first 25 percent rate increase took effect in April.

Johnson said the April rate increase was not enough to balance the department's finances, since big increases are needed to cover new debt service.

Adding to the bad financial news, Rockingham Town Finance Director Ron Karvosky told the trustees that the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank had "called in" a $521,000 loan it had awarded the village more than a year ago to help finance upgrades to the village's wastewater treatment plant.

But Karvosky said the village had never used the loan, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture had paid for the entire project.

The issues, he told the trustees, are: where is the money and how much has to be paid back — and how soon?

Karvosky said the village had originally planned on paying the money back over the next couple of years, but the bond bank wants its money immediately — and no later than October.

Karvosky said the bond bank had forgiven $198,000 of the $522,000 loan, leaving a balance of $322,000. He said the money had been deposited in the town of Rockingham's general account, and the town would have to cut a check.

But trustees balked at approving a plan that would have raised sewer rates another 25 percent, with Trustee Jonathan Wright saying if the bond bank money's $198,000 credit really existed, it could be used to cut the projected increase.

Deborah Wright said a significant increase was inevitable. "We have to own it," she said. "But we're not happy with this."

The village president, who was elected earlier this year, said previous boards were not given full information about the financial impacts of the various bond issues and projects in the wastewater and water departments.

Since then, she said, the village administration has changed.

At one point during the lengthy discussion Trustee Stefan Golec said he was tempted to say something, but he was prohibited from doing so.

The village and town of Rockingham signed a separation agreement with former Municipal Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns in 2016 that prohibits both sides from being critical of the other.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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