Water district increases to pay for improvements, maintaining local control

Hampton Bays Residents Could See Rate Hikes




Hampton Bays resident Debbie Sarube complained of discolored water at her home last June that she said continued through July. Independent/Debbie Sarube

The cost of maintaining local control may be high for Hampton Bays Water District customers.

Residents could potentially see a 25 percent increase in their water bills. The number came up during a June 27 discussion between Southampton Town Board members, who act as water district commissioners, and town comptroller Len Marchese over the cost of funding two infrastructure upgrades.

The rate increase would pay for the purchase and installation of a $3.6 million iron and manganese filtration system at the district’s fourth wellfield along Bellows Pond Road near Sears Bellows County Park, and a $2.8 million resurfacing of the site’s tank. Because pump 4-2 at the wellfield has been turned off as a result of iron and manganese levels being above the one mg/L limit, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the upgrades are urgent. The costs of waiting, he said, include lower water pressure and potential discolored water while demand is high in the summer months. These issues were seen last summer, along with high levels of
perfluorinated chemicals.

“They’ve been problems. It’s something I’m looking to avoid,” Schneiderman said. “This pump does provide critical volume, so it’s unfortunate as we approach the summer season that we’re operating only one of the two pumps at the fourth field. We need to figure out a pathway that will cover the debt service on these two items as well as providing the district additional funds for routine maintenance.”

During the time the issues arose last summer, the supervisor learned wells should be cleaned at least once every seven years. The wells at the fourth field hadn’t been serviced in 22. Schneiderman said this means the water district would have to clean one or two wells a year across its fields to remain in compliance. The cost is $50,000 a well.

While Schneiderman’s statement that the two items were being pulled out of necessity was argued, the projects were on a top list of priorities generated through a study done by Suffolk County Water Authority, which had been in talks with the town board about taking over management of the water district. The water district’s superintendent, Robert King, also agreed there’s a sense of urgency, according to Schneiderman.

King confirmed this July 5, adding he’d like to see them addressed by this fall. Councilwoman Julie Lofstad also pointed to 10 years’ worth of reports from Melville-based H2M Architects + Engineers, which identified both the iron filtration system and tank resurfacing as “high priority” items.

At the Thursday work session, Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera said she was hesitant to move forward with enacting a rate increase without first hearing from consultants D&B Architects. The Woodbury-based firm was hired by the board in March for $47,000 to assess the condition of the water district’s infrastructure and establish a 10-year capital improvement plan. That plan would have a ranked list of items needing immediate attention.

“I feel like we’re operating in the dark without all the information I need to make an intelligent decision,” Preston Scalera said. “We keep doing this circulatory thing going back to the fact that we’re trying to get real numbers so we can give the people of the district real numbers.”

Councilman Tommy John Schia-voni said he’s hoping concrete costs
presented in a package by D&B Architects will help the board present the options better to Hampton Bays residents, who can then decide if they would like to take the issue over management to vote. Suffolk County Water Authority has said it would cover the costs of the infrastructure upgrades without rate increases, saying instead its entire customer base would help foot the bill.

Marchese said to borrow the over $6 million for just the two projects would come with roughly $422,000 a year in debt services. He said when factoring in the additional $100,000 a year for well maintenance, that number would jump to $550,000. With an $8 million need, factoring in other future undertakings, it would come to $700,000 of debt.

“We know there are expenses coming up regardless,” Councilman John Bouvier said. “Let’s identify how we’re going to pay for it. I’m all in favor of getting the revenue we need. We’ve already anticipated this. We know they are the highest priorities. For me it’s very clear.”

The Hampton Bays Water District hasn’t seen rates raised since 2012, when they were bumped up five percent. On average, other districts, including Suffolk’s, have raised rates on average four percent a year, Marchese said. He added even if rates were raised 10 percent, going off the average $1.95 million brought in through consumption with the current rate structure, that’d only be an extra $190,000 in extra revenue.

“In order to get up to the number that you need, if you were to just do it through a rate increase, you’d be looking at a pretty significant one,” he said. “We need to open a dialogue in terms of funding needs in general. My job is to get long term planning in place to get you on a strong financial footing to do the things you want to do.”

In response to Preston Scalera’s concerns, Marchese suggested funds begin being raised immediately, saying it would behoove the board to have money in place before getting to that step.

“As a result of your needs, you’ll have funds available to deploy as necessary; otherwise, we’ll have to loan money to the fund and play catch-up, which we’ve never done in the past,” Marchese said. “There’s a planning process — putting it out to bid, getting bids, scheduling the work — this is a six-month, ninth-month lead time to even get a shovel in the ground, literally. You have to act today to have the water for next year.”

While Marchese said taxes could be raised in January, rates could be raised at any time of the year to get a fund started as soon as possible. Schneiderman said he was in favor of raising rates over taxes, saying charging based on consumption is the fairest way.

Water district officials will answer questions at a 7 PM meeting Monday, July 15, at the Hampton Bays Community Center on Ponquogue Avenue.

desiree@indyeastend.com