Published: Monday, November 29, 2010, 3:51 PM Updated: Monday, November 29, 2010, 3:57 PM
Mike Plaisance, The Republican
HOLYOKE – City councilors said they want more done to hunt down $600,000 in late bills before they will agree to increase the sewer rate, which would be unfair to those who pay bills on time. “Essentially, they’re asking everyone to take on an added burden of those who owe fees into the system,” Councilor-at-Large Rebecca Lisi said on Nov. 18.
“We should go after these bills without raising a penny of the sewer fee,” Councilor-at-Large James M. Leahy said.
Leahy has proposed the city hire a collection agency to track down sewer bill delinquents.
Mayor Elaine A. Pluta said she was willing to discuss the hiring of such a collector with city Treasurer Jon D. Lumbra, provided councilors understand that such a hiring requires spending.
Councilors’ concerns come as Public Works Superintendent William D. Fuqua has outlined a proposal that would increase the sewer rate by 18.5 percent. That would be to avoid a $341,900 deficit in the sewer fund by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, he said.
Under the proposal, the average household’s yearly sewer bill would increase to $430 from the current $365.
That’s based on the current rate of $5.40 per 1,000 metered gallons used, increasing to $6.40 per 1,000 metered gallons used.
The setting of the sewer rate is a City Council decision.
Councilor Diosdado Lopez, chairman of the Ordinance Committee, said councilors want additional information that includes more effort on late bills. He was still hopeful about establishing a new sewer rate by late December, he said.
The sewer fund is about $8.7 million. Most of that is money the city is contractually bound to pay to United Water, the private company that manages the sewer system, Fuqua said.
United Water will be paid about $6.8 million this year, and the company gets an increase based on the rate of inflation, he said.
The problem that could result in a sewer-fund deficit is that revenue coming in from sewer customers isn’t keeping pace with the rate paid to United Water, he said.
Fuqua is working with Lumbra to issue letters to the overdue customers who collectively owe more than $600,000. That step precedes the city’s placement of a lien on the property. A lien is a legal step that assures that if the property is sold, the city is the first to get paid.
“That’s our only, most effective way to collect the money,” Fuqua said.
Lopez was among councilors seeking actions with more tangible results than liens. Sewer customers who owe money should be put on notice that permits or licenses they have from the city are at stake, he said.
“For example, a letter will go out on a specific date, and if you don’t pay by another date, you will lose the permit,” Lopez said.
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