approached with 11 topics of citizen concern, and we've compiled their responses for your consideration.
Below is their take on the water and sewer issue in Havre de Grace, with incumbents listed first and challengers listed second, in alphabetical order:
As the council liaison to the water and sewer commission, Cullum works as closely with the fund and its deficit as anyone in Havre de Grace.
“Realistically we need to do 100 building permits a year to meet our debt payment,” Cullum said.
The city’s water and sewer fund is tied to the income from housing starts in the city.
Cullum said the expansive amount of input given by the experienced volunteers on the commission has been invaluable. He feels the mayor’s proposed three-year rate plan will work.
But Cullum said more needs to be done—particularly with the infrastructure in the city.
“It just continues to get older and older and more susceptible to problems as time goes on,” he said. “We’ve never established any means to take care of that.”
Martin calls himself “a big supporter” of the proposed five-year rate increase plan, but said such a staple utility is a must in Havre de Grace.
“Water and sewer should not even be an issue. You have to have drinking water. It’s like, whatever it takes,” he said.
Martin and three other voters rejected the water and sewer commission’s recommendation for a five-percent rate hike a few years ago. Martin said it was strategy—a stress test of the water and sewer fund, he said.
“Sometimes you have to decipher what is a need versus what is a want,” he said. “I wanted to see what [the fund] could take. And I saw what it could take: very little.”
Martin said the ultimate fix for the fund is to get Bulle Rock to full capacity, to help pay down the debt on the state-mandated $27 million ENR plant upgrade.
In the meantime, he feels the plan in place—a five percent rate hike in each of the next three years—gives residents the ability to plan and prepare.
“Hopefully it takes guesswork out of it, politics out of it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, then we go back and fix it.”
Miller isn’t in favor of the rate hikes, he said. Instead, he’d like to see the city take a recommendation he and others made years ago.
“I think the city needs to take a step back and look at the operation of both the water plant and the wastewater plant. I was on the water and sewer commission when they first appointed one … and we asked to have an independent auditing firm come in and do an efficiency audit on the operation of the water plant and the wastewater plant just to let us know if we were doing everything that we could efficiently and cost-effectively,” Miller said. “And the administration refuses to look into that; they piecemeal things.”
Miller said the city isn’t outsmarting its residents. In fact, Miller said many residents probably did what he did when rates were last raised—he conserved.
“There are things that can be done to cut costs. The philosophy is now, ‘Oh, we’ll just raise the rates.’ But when you raise the rates, people conserve,” Miller said. “So if we’re not selling any water, we’re right back to where it is.”
Glenn believes in tax and fee increases as a final option.
Fiscal responsibility includes the water and sewer fees, he said.
“We’ll continue to scrub the budget and see where we can find some extra money. Is there any money available for the fact that we didn’t plow snow this year? Did they set money aside for that, and how was that reallocated? While I’ve been going to council meetings, I’m not in tune with everything behind the scenes,” he said.
Glenn also likes to examine how other municipalities are reacting to the urge to increase fees.
“You try to look at lessons learned from other areas. You keep your fingers crossed that the economy bounces back,” Glenn said.
Glenn feels having the ability to fluctuate the fees is important—particularly if most of the fund deficit is recouped with a good year.
“What if something magical happens in Year 2 and you don’t need it through Year 5? ,” Glenn asked. “I’m one of those people who will be fiscally responsible for taxpayers dollars.”
Sawyer said there is only so much that can be done with water and sewer rates.
“Water and sewer fees are what they are,” Sawyer said. “If you can find efficiencies, then you can lower them. Other than making the system more efficient, [there’s little that can be done].”
Sawyer discussed the idea that perhaps the city could go after grant money and funding from the state, before settling on the idea that the city’s residents should ultimately bear the brunt of the costs.
“At the end of the day, it’s the people that use the water and the sewer that should probably pay for it,” Sawyer said. “There’s no reason for someone else in the state of Maryland who has their own water and sewer to pay for part of Havre de Grace’s.”
Scharbrough said the city has done a good job of explaining to residents that the costs being passed down by the city are also being passed down to the city.
“A lot of the sewer and water concerns are dictated by the state and the federal government, and Havre de Grace just has to implement them,” he said. “Those are fees, not necessarily user fees, but those forced down on the city of Havre de Grace.”
Scharbrough said maintaining such vital needs falls upon the city.
But he thinks the city can look outside for help, too.
“How could we get some of that money back that we spend to the federal and state government? Could there be grant money, or a loan modification or a reprieve of fees on a temporary basis? These fees and associated costs continue to come to the citizens and the city without abatement,” he said. “We have to look into that. All of these things impact the city’s health and well being.”
With an eye on the water and sewer fund’s tie to housing starts, Smith points to a comprehensive plan from 2010 that projected a future population of Havre de Grace at 19,000 residents.
“In the matter of 25 years, the population doubles [according to the plan]. We’re at 14,500 now,” Smith explained.
“Did anyone at any point in time say, what happens if we don’t meet our estimate? What happens if the economy slows down? You have to think about that,” Smith said. “You have to consider what is possible and what is probable.”
Smith said the pricing model—of a pay rate based upon volume of consumption—should be looked into, too.
Finally, he suggests the city seriously consider joining into a regional water authority with other local communities.
“There are some things that just make sense to do in concert with other areas. A regional water authority … if you can spread the costs over a larger group of people, then it brings down the costs for everyone,” he said. “What stands in the way of doing that?”
For more on the election, read here.
The Havre de Grace Election will be held May 8 at the Hall on Pennington Avenue.