The cost of conservation

It’s darned if you do and darned if you don’t, when it comes to the rate that water users in Revere will be paying.

Even with consumption down for this year, water ratepayers will still have to pay more.

The bland world of numbers that is behind the city’s water and sewer rates got a little steamier this week when Mayor Tom Ambrosino announced that, instead of a 7.5 percent increase, ratepayers would face something more like a 20 percent increase.

That news came rather unexpectedly to all parties, and it seemed to blindside the mayor just as much as it did city councillors.

Ambrosino had previously moved to set the new rates last week, rates that included a 7.5 percent increase over last year for residential customers and a 11 percent for commercial.

However, after examining new numbers late last week, Ambrosino said that the system is in deficit by an estimated $1 million, and that would most likely equal an increase of as much as 20 percent.

The reason is that there is a separate budget, called the Water and Sewer Enterprise Fund, for all matters that pertain to water repairs, personnel and projects. And having spent the money on projects and personnel based on a higher level of consumption, with the lower level of usage, receipts are down and creating a deficit. Hence higher rates are needed to cover the money spent in the last fiscal year on water projects in Revere.

“We’re looking at a serious deficit in revenue for fiscal year 2010 which just surfaced this morning,” said the mayor on Monday. “Revenues are down dramatically for May and most of June. Usage is off…The number of gallons is significantly less than in previous years.”

Ambrosino said that typically they estimate at the beginning of the fiscal year that everyone in the system will use a combined 1.5 million hundred cubic feet during the year.

However, people seemed to use a lot less water this spring, and the only culprit identified so far is the possibility of better water conservation. He said the collections appeared to be on track until the numbers dropped off the table in May.

“We’ve been using 1.5 million for the last decade; the number has always, no matter what, come in around there,” said the mayor. “Generally, it was right there every single year. This year, it’s 1.43 million and that’s a significant decrease. It’s just a lot less than what we’re used to seeing.”

Ambrosino has pledged to put all of his administration’s efforts this week into identifying the problem and pegging down the deficit.

“It means I will have to raise the money in next year’s rates,” said the mayor.

In order to set a water and sewer rate by the deadline, which is July 1, he has to get to the bottom of the problem.

Water and sewer rates are set every June by the mayor and the Superintendent of Public Works. They are confirmed by a vote of the City Council.

Officials guess at the amount of water that they believe will be used and then set a yearly budget based on anticipated revenues. If officials guess too high for the amount of water used, then it results in a shortfall in money.

Because after all that, setting rates is kind of a gamble.

If there were a 20 percent increase, it would mean that water and sewer rates have increased by 37.5 percent in the last five years.

“[They mayor] can start drinking the water because people are drowning in this city under these rates,” said an exasperated Councillor George V. Colella. “This is absolutely unfair. The Water and Sewer Enterprise Fund has become a largess for the mayor and it’s not being properly managed. I don’t think it’s being supervised properly.”

Other councillors were also quite peeved at the last minute announcement, noting that they had very little time to discuss the rates, as they have to be in place by next Monday’s meeting.

“A 20 percent increase is unacceptable whether it’s a one-time deficit or two times,” said Councillor George Rotondo. “Once it’s up there, it’s very hard to take back that increase…You can’t go back to the ratepayer and say, ‘Excuse me,’ and put your hand out.”

Council President Tony Zambuto said he suspected that there might be some foul play involved and he would be interested in hearing the results of a detailed investigation.

“I’m skeptical,” he said. “I hope it’s not a meter problem if you know what I’m saying…I would be willing to bet it’s not conservation. I wish it were, but I think it’s something different.”

Ambrosino told the Council that last year’s rates probably should have been set higher.

“In hindsight, the rate should have been higher,” he said.

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