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Only Steps Forward: Rising water and sewer bills point to need for efficiencies

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

Many of you may have recently received your latest water and sewer bills in the mail. While I also got mine, I know other taxpayers have, too—it’s been the major topic of phone calls and folks approaching me as I’m out and around town.

Knowing that city budget season is upon us, folks are worried about the continued increases in taxes and fees when their incomes aren’t rising alongside it.

A few months back, I provided some thoughts and concerns about the proposed rate increase at the water district. Because of the heavy reliance on a major water consumer like Cascade Fiber, which is now closed, and expenses rising faster than revenues, double-digit rate increases were passed.

Over the years, I’ve certainly pushed for a thorough review of the City of Auburn’s options with respect to the watershed of Lake Auburn, as well as how we could protect and improve drinking water quality, while providing additional options to grow our tax base. High-value development, done properly with 21st-century waste management systems, could attract more residents and visitors to Auburn, grow our tax base and help fund infrastructure.

Today, however, isn’t the day to make that pitch again. The challenge with rising water and sewer rates is about much more than how the land around Lake Auburn has been taken off the tax rolls for our community. It’s about the basic cost of services and whether we are using each and every dollar the best way possible, from both taxes and fees, before asking taxpayers for another.

Separate and distinct from the Auburn Public Services department, with its crews and heavy equipment, the Auburn Water District and Auburn Sewerage District maintain their own crews and management, their own fleet of equipment, their own stores houses of parts and supplies.

While the City of Auburn has a finance department staffed with tax collectors and customer service representatives, as well as the ability to process and mail bills and deposit payments, the Auburn Water District and Auburn Sewer District maintains their own staffing and processes those bills and payments, mailed to Auburn taxpayers.

Before the last rate increase, a simple question was asked publicly. Would the separate boards of trustees for the water and sewerage districts commit to assessing all opportunities for efficiencies with the City of Auburn before going forward? And if the rate increase still went forward, at least commit to tackling that assessment immediately after?

With no commitment made, I then asked my trustee on those two boards, City Councilor Andy Titus, to ask the boards directly to investigate this topic. Rather than responding directly, Councilor Titus was sent a long list of tasks completed by the water and sewerage districts that involve Auburn city staff. Completing tasks together, or coordinating work, is laudable, as it’s the easiest way to demonstrate some level of cooperation.

But whether we need two people on a task at all, or if some of those tasks even need to be completed, are the kinds of questions that lead to answers that save all of us money.

If neither board wishes to commit to all options to reduce costs, ratepayers have been asking me what their next option would be. Could the districts be eliminated? Could the city “take them over?”

The simplest next step, as I have recommended to a number of people, is to put forward legislation in Augusta to amend the charter of the districts to require a vote on trustees. If those wishing to serve on either board had a little more sunlight on their positions about everything from Lake Auburn to how high rates should go before finding efficiencies with city departments, we might see some movement on this topic to save us all some money.

Of course, it’s not really the simplest next step. The easiest thing for those two boards to do would be to pass a resolution at their next meeting committing to an

efficiency study with the city that puts everything on the table. Anything short of that is another reach into your wallet.

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