Action on sewer rate changes delayed

MERRIMACK – Any increase to town sewer rates, which could cost Anheuser-Busch/InBev an extra $1 million a year, was delayed when the Merrimack Town Council put off a decision on a rate adjustment to next month.

A sewer rate study, conducted by Wright-Pierce, suggests increasing the residential and commercial sewer rates by 8 percent. That amounts to an increase of $14 on a $189 annual bill for the town’s roughly 5,000 residential users.

But the largest impact, if the proposed rate structure were adopted as is, would be for the beer plant. Its rate would more than double to $7.50 per 1,000 gallons. That would increase the plant’s sewer bill from about $1 million to about $2 million, according to public works director Rick Seymour.

Anheuser-Busch officials Thursday asked the council to delay its decision to allow more time for the company to review the report, which the council agreed to do, Chairman Thomas Mahon said.

A public hearing on the rate structure will be Feb. 12.

After his initial reading of the Wright-Pierce study, the beer plant’s new general manager, Kris Scholl, said he “strongly oppose(s)” the increase, which he called “unreasonable.”

Seymour said he proposed the change to the plant’s rates because while the amount of wastewater it sends to the treatment facility has been halved over the past year, the amount of pollutants in that water are the same. That means the plant has to work just as hard – and spend just as much money – to treat that water but is being paid less to do so.

“The concentration of materials and the effort to treat it hasn’t changed,” Seymour said.

The plant’s rate was negotiated with the town in 2006, Town Manager Keith Hickey told the council, and it was based on what amount of wastewater the plant sent to the town’s treatment facility. When the plant started sending less water, but the same amount of pollutants, it created an “artificially low” bill for the beer giant.

“Because it was all a flow-based cost, their cost went down,” Hickey said. “The issue is the flowage amount has dropped but the amount of money it costs us to treat their flow has not.”

Even taking into account the decreased flow, the proposed increase is still out of line, Scholl said, and places a “disproportionate burden” on the company’s smallest U.S. plant.

The town’s 420 commercial users would pay $2.66 per 1,000 gallons of wastewater as opposed to $2.47 now, Seymour said.

The town’s rates haven’t been increased for three or four years, Hickey said.

The study also recommends increasing the connection fee for new users to $2,000. Connections fees vary now.

Seymour said the study included a schedule for future rate increases based on expected operating cost increases and a capital improvement plan. He added the schedule would even out rate increases on an almost-yearly basis while keeping about $2 million in the wastewater accounts reserves.

The system’s users, who are not all taxpayers, fund the wastewater facility and related infrastructure, Seymour said.