CHARLESTOWN — The Charlestown Selectboard approved an 80% increase to the town’s water rate Wednesday night in an effort to pay off the department’s debt and fund a number of critical infrastructure projects.
By a unanimous vote, the selectboard increased the town’s water rate from $2.35 per 100 cubic feet of water to $4.20 per 100 cubic feet of water. The change will go into effect July 15.
The average family home should expect to see an increase of $16 per quarterly bill, or $64 per year, whereas larger buildings, such as businesses and apartment buildings, could see an approximate increase of $280 per quarter, according to Selectman Scott Wade.
“We understand the gravity of the decision that we made,” Wade told attendees at the scheduled public hearing. “What’s unfortunate is that we’re making this change now, and it wasn’t gradual over the last 10 years, to get us to where we need to be. We’re facing the issue now and trying to make the best decision possible.”
The selectboard has attempted to address a history of under-budgeting for the water department in recent years which has had to borrow from the town’s general fund as far back as 2002 to cover its annual deficits. The department currently needs to repay a total of $350,000 to the general fund.
Wade said the selectboard has reinstated a budget plan, originally adopted by the board in 2017, in which the water department will reimburse $50,000 per year to the general fund, over the next seven years. The selectboard budgeted for this reimbursement in 2017 and 2018 but halted the practice the last two years.
The increase is also necessary to adequately fund numerous upgrades to the system’s infrastructure, which previous town budgets have failed to address, Wade said.
Some water lines in town date back to 1890, while some have lead or asbestos contamination, according to Wade. While these contamination levels currently meet state guidelines, they will all need to be replaced by 2025.
“So if we don’t start acting on this now, we’re going to have a huge bill to foot in 2025 when we have to replace those,” Wade said.
The selectboard has approved a 20-year plan that details both imminent infrastructure projects and a long-term replacement and maintenance schedule.
In a separate funding project, the selectboard plans to propose a $2 million bond to fund a water interconnect that will deliver water from Charlestown’s primary well to North Charlestown, whose well water has arsenic levels that exceed state regulations.
Selectman Jeffrey Lessels said that the board considered numerous options, including new well drilling and enhanced filtering, but after research and consultation with engineers and Water Superintendent David Duquette, concluded that the water interconnect was the best choice long-term.
The board estimates the project to cost up to $5 million, but grants are expected to cover a significant portion, according to Lessels.
The interconnect project will be a major discussion heading into the next budget season, as town voters will be asked to approve a bond proposal for the water interconnect.
The selectboard said hypothetically that should voters reject the bond proposal, the town will need to find money elsewhere to lower the arsenic levels.
Lessard said that Charlestown could potentially face up to $4,000 per day in state fines for not being in compliance if the town fails to address the North Charlestown water issue.
“[The potential fines] push us a little faster than we might like,” Lessard said.
Speaking to the rate increase, Selectboard Chair Albert St. Pierre said the board initially wanted to approve the new rates in April but were delayed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Water is the number one [priority],” St. Pierre said. “There are a lot of things we can go after [in our budgets], but we cannot go without water. If we’re going to cut budgets and take it out of somewhere, this is not the place to do it.”