OAKLAND — The town is considering a sewer rate increase of up to 35 percent to cover increasing costs related to the shift three years ago from a town-owned plant to the Waterville treatment facility.

The town’s sewer department, which maintains a budget separate from those of other town departments, has operated in the red since the $6 million system was completed in 2012. In that time, it has used up $400,000 in reserves to pay for operating costs, leaving about $75,000, Town Manager Gary Bowman told the Town Council at its meeting Wednesday.

The remaining money isn’t enough to pay for operations, and the town needs to start rebuilding its reserves to deal with a persistent stormwater infiltration problem that costs the town tens of thousands of dollars every year.

“We don’t have a lot of choices here,” Bowman told councilors. “We have to make this thing pay for itself.”

The town staff has yet to finalize a sewer budget for next year and isn’t sure exactly what the burden on ratepayers will wind up being, Bowman said. The proposed budget is likely to be smaller than last year’s, but without reserves to back it, customers would pay the difference. Last year’s budget was almost $559,000.

Early estimates indicate the town would need to increase rates by at least 31.5 percent just to break even, Bowman said. Finance Director Doug Mather, however, was recommending the town raise rates by 35 percent, which would allow it to save at least $13,000 a year to put toward its reserves, Bowman said.

The town’s system has roughly 800 customers who pay, on average, a $62.28 sewer bill every quarter, Bowman said. A 35 percent rate hike could increase that bill to about $86.25, he told councilors.

If approved, it would be the first sewer rate increase since 2005.

The council’s reaction to a proposed sewer rate hike was largely muted, although Councilor Dana Wrigley said borrowing could be an option if the department could identify projects to stop infiltration.

Don Borman, another councilor, said that the proposal wasn’t unexpected, and the town knew it would have to increase rates at some point after it connected to Waterville.

In 2009, Oakland began construction of a connection to the Waterville Sewerage District for treatment at the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District after it was prohibited by state law from discharging effluent into an impounded section on Messalonskee Stream through a town-owned treatment plant.

The connection to Waterville went online in 2012, and costs quickly rose.

The central reason for rising expenses is the volume of rainwater and runoff leaking into the system that Oakland is paying to treat in Waterville, said Boyd Snowden, the Sewer Department Superintendent.

Snowden estimates that close to 65 percent of all the sewage Oakland is sending through its main Webb Road line is from outside the system. On average, the town sends about 175,000 gallons a day to Waterville, but in the month of April, the flow can spike to at least 430,000 gallons a day because of snowmelt and rainfall, Snowden said. Transporting and treating the infiltrated water adds an estimated $107,000 in expenses.

When the town ran its own system, the infiltration issue wasn’t as much of a problem, because it could handle the surge in flow, Snowden told the council.

Now it has to pay to pump and treat the sewage, which accounts for about 44 percent of the department’s expenses, Snowden said.

The town already has started a sump pump inspection program to identify residents who might be putting stormwater into the pipes and is looking at likely areas were rain and runoff are getting in, including Water Street and Oak Hill Drive, Snowden said.

“We’re never going to get it all, but if we get a chunk of it, maybe we can find some savings,” he told the council.

To do that, the sewer department needs to have funding, which is why the department says a rate increase is necessary. Earlier this year, Snowden proposed buying flow meters to test areas where infiltration was the worst, but on Wednesday Bowman reported that the department was waiting to apply for grants to cover some of the purchase.

“We’re trying not to spend any more at this point,” he said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.