At the council meeting on Tuesday, September 3, Town Manager Austin Faison requested that Council transfer $25,000 from its reserve to fund a Water & Sewer Rate Cost Study. While his request was approved 2-1 in subcommittee, Council rejected it on Tuesday when the vote came to a tie.
Water and sewer rates had been raised by 17 percent in May of 2018. Rates were hiked again not even a year later in February of 2019.
The rate change was meant to address a deficit of $576,000, due in part to residents using approximately 6 percent less water than projected, perhaps in the hopes of reducing the costs of their own water bills. At the time, Faison said that he didn’t expect another rate hike for at least one and a half years until July of 2020 at the earliest.
Rates do not decrease due to reduced water usage, since the Mass Water Resources Authority (MWRA) calculates in terms of three-year periods. For that reason, current usage decreases are not reflected in rates until the following three-year term.
After the January rate increase, residents demanded answers and staged protests. There were calls for the Mass State Auditor’s Office to look into the Winthrop Water & Sewer assessment process. When Faison reached out to the State Auditor to initiate the process, she told him that the issue didn’t “rise to the level of something we would choose to audit.”
Unlike an audit, which looks backwards and investigates how finances are being managed, the Water & Sewer Rate Cost Study proposed by the Town Manager would have examined the potential for adopting a tiered system similar to other towns.
Winthrop currently charges a single rate to all users in the community, regardless of whether that user is a single-family home, multi-family home, condo or business. The study would have looked into different ways to add up to the same number, but would not have focused on rate reduction.
Council Vice President James Letterie commented that it was the high water rates and not the absence of a tiered system that was most upsetting to residents. He also mentioned that the $25,000 for the study should come from the City’s Water & Sewer Fund and not from the Council Reserve.
Ultimately, Councilors Christopher, DeMarco, Ferrino and Vecchia voted in favor of funding the study, while Councilors Boncore, Calla, Leterrie and LoConte voted against it.
Faison told the Transcript that the community had previously shown “a high level of civic engagement on this issue.” Now that the Water & Sewer Rate Cost Study has been rejected by Council, he said it is up to residents to decide if they still want to pursue this direction of inquiry.