GARDINER — City councilors didn’t vote on changes to sewer rates at a hearing Wednesday, but they are reaching a consensus that the changes are needed.

“But it should probably be slowly phased in especially given today’s economy,” said City Manager Scott Morelli. “Maybe over a year or two — intermittently build up to what the new rate will be.”

Morelli said the City Council will wait until after inauguration of new councilors on Jan. 11 to vote on changes to the rate structure.

About 15 people showed up at the hearing Wednesday to discuss the rate proposal to change. The city is considering changing its sewer billing practices to charges based more on a property’s actual sewer use, instead of estimates based on its possible demand on the sewer system.

City officials expected a bigger crowd and had cleaned out one of the fire station’s bays to accommodate overflow seating. The meeting was held in the council chamber at City Hall, which is attached to the fire station.

“We filled the room, but didn’t access the bay in the fire department,” said City Manager Scott Morelli. “Most of the people there spoke not necessarily against the new rates, just about it being such a drastic increase for some folks and that it would occur over such a short time-frame.”

Proponents of the billing change say the existing model places a disproportionate burden on certain properties, such as churches and social halls, because they use little water despite their size, while the heavier residential and commercial users pay more modest sewer bills.

If the formula for determining sewer usage is changed, the annual bill for the Maine Turnpike Authority’s rest area and visitor center in West Gardiner, for example, could jump from $1,955 to $5,080.

Harvey DeVane, who lives on School Street, said his sewer bill will triple, from $400 to $1,200 a year, but he is in favor of the changes. He thinks it should be based more on actual use instead of a formula or estimate.

“You look at a building like churches,” DeVane said. “They’re not doing well in our society when you see them for sale or boarded up and with small congregations. They shouldn’t be charged based on the size of the building when it’s unoccupied or used only once a week.”

If the new system is adopted, Morelli said each sewer user in Gardiner would pay a base rate of $87 per quarter, which would cover up to 1,200 cubic feet of wastewater discharged into the sewer system.

Heavier users would then be billed an additional $10 for each 100 cubic feet of wastewater above the 1,200 cubic foot minimum.

Morelli said his staff will work on how to phase in the new rates and present it to the council for a vote. He said the proposed rate change probably wouldn’t go into effect until July.

He said residents with high water usage can install a second meter to measure water they use to fill up pools or water gardens.

“They can add a second meter on their house for water not going into the sewer system and we would credit that onto their sewer bill,” Morelli said. “We’re not treating it so we won’t charge them for it. Regardless of what system we use, they have that option.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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