SKOWHEGAN — The Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Office of Public Advocate have approved rate hikes for Skowhegan customers of Aqua Maine, Inc.

The increase, first proposed in March, amounts to $121,993 annually or 9.63 percent in the company’s Skowhegan Division.

This is the first rate increase for the 2,400 Skowhegan customers in three years, the company said earlier this year. Skowhegan has a population of around 8,600.

The new rates took effect Aug. 1, but were announced Monday, according to a release from the Public Utilities Commission.

Aqua Maine’s divisions in Millinocket and Freeport also will see increases in water fees.

Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said in March that selectmen and the town’s budget committee had already accounted for the increase in the town’s operating budget for 2011-12, which was adopted in June.

The approved changes also will result in a reduction of the amount of water that is included in the minimum base charge in Skowhegan from 600 cubic feet per quarter to 300 cubic feet per quarter.

The average quarterly bill for a customer using 1,500 cubic feet of water is now $71.74, an increase of $6.01, or 7 cents per day, according to the company. Residential customers will continue to pay less than $1 per day for their water.

“We continue to maintain and upgrade aging infrastructure, and have invested nearly $600,000 into our system since 2008, with no impact on customer rates,” the company said in March. “To keep our rate request as limited as possible, we were able to use low-cost American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for about one half of these improvements, replacing 6-inch, 80-year-old cast iron main with 12-inch ductile iron main, resulting in greater system reliability and fire flows.”

Doucette said any rate increase during these times of tight budgets is going to be difficult.

“I got them last year to hold off doing an increase for the town,” Doucette said. “Our water system, like our sewer system in Skowhegan, are aged.”

PUC Chairman Tom Welch said rate increases during rough economic times are unpopular but necessary.

“It is always difficult for customers to bear increases in rates for essential services,” Welch said. “Review by the Office of Public Advocate, as well as our staff, however, confirmed that these increases are necessary to permit Aqua Maine to continue to provide an adequately safe and reliable level of service to its customers.”

Welch said the changes in the minimum charge will provide customers with greater control over their bills and may also encourage conservation, which in the long run could help reduce costs.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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