NORRIDGEWOCK — Members of the town’s sewer commission said Wednesday that after a second meeting with the town auditor, they felt that confusion about the sewer department’s finances had been cleared up and they were ready to address some of the department’s other challenges.

“Much of the information we were given tonight we’ve never heard before,” said Ron Currier, vice chairman of the sewer commission, after the joint meeting with the auditor and Board of Selectmen. “I didn’t think it was necessary (to ask a lot of questions) because I think he was very forthcoming and did a good job.”

In past weeks Currier and other members of the five-person commission said they were confused about the state of the sewer department’s finances and that they had been misled by the auditor and town manager regarding sewer accounts. The department has operated with a debt of about $100,000 to the town for most of the year and has operated with subsidies from the town in past years.

Former Town Manager and Sewer Administrator Michelle Flewelling had stressed to the commission before her departure last month that getting the department’s finances straightened out would be critical to ensure that much-needed repairs at the sewer department can take place, yet action has been stalled by confusion about exactly how much money the department has.

Wednesday night’s joint meeting was called after a December meeting with the board in which commissioners expressed their frustration and said they didn’t know where they stood financially.

It was the second public meeting with auditor Ron Smith, who originally was called to meet with the department in November. At that meeting, Smith told the commission, “The sewer department has no funds,” a statement that some commissioners said took them by surprise, since the town manager had informed them that the department did have money in its reserve accounts.

Currier then wrote, in a letter to commission Chairwoman Kristina Gossman, that he was concerned about the “integrity of the financial reports being provided” and asked for the sewer department accounts to be re-audited.

“Why are the accounts empty?” he wrote. “And why were we led to believe there were real monies in each of these accounts?”

Smith, in an interview with the Morning Sentinel, said the commission had misinterpreted his statements and that while he did say the sewer department “had no funds,” he meant only that the department is in debt, not that money is missing from its accounts.

On Wednesday, Smith again told both the board and commissioners, all of whom were present at the board meeting, that the sewer department has no operational funds and that while there is money in the bank, that represents the sewer’s reserve funds and much of that money is owed to the town.

As of Dec.3, the sewer department had $332,480 in its reserve account.

“Physically on a piece of paper, that money is sitting in the bank account, but guess what? Two hundred thousand is spoken for, because that needs to be reimbursed back to the town of Norridgewock,” Smith said.

The chief reason for the sewer department’s continual operational deficit is that the current sewer rates are not enough to cover the department’s operational costs, he said. As a result, the town has subsidized the department, including through an annual $85,000 debt service payment that is scheduled to run through 2020.

In the November meeting, Smith encouraged commissioners to either look at a rate increase or consider combining the sewer department with town operations. In theory the department is structured to stand as an independent entity funded by user rates, but in actuality the town has subsidized it over the last several years.

“The only way (the debt) will get addressed is through some sort of a rate study and rate increase,” Smith said. “That’s important to know. I know we started to talk about that (with the commissioners), and I think it’s also an important discussion to have with the Board of Selectmen because it affects the town of Norridgewock.”

Smith talked for nearly 45 minutes and told the board and commissioners he is happy to also attend future meetings, though he also commented that he would rather not hear of the town’s concerns through “letters that cry ‘liar, liar’ and ‘fire, fire.'”

“That’s no way to deal with a very serious issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Currier, in his comments to the board, said he felt that Wednesday’s discussion was “very helpful.”

“I think it’s going to take some time to address the issues discussed tonight,” said Currier, who also asked the board whether the town could transfer $100,000 each year over the next three years from Waste Management tipping fees to the sewer department to help them “get financially underfoot.”

No action was taken on the suggestion.

“We’re going to set up a plan,” Currier said. “We’re going to hire an engineer to go to the sewer plant and make a plan for upgrades, maintenance and repairs, estimate the costs. That’s going to take time, and we don’t know yet how much it will cost. It could be $100,000 or $1.5 million. We don’t know.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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