City residents opening their six-month water bills at the beginning of October either will or will not find them 15 percent higher, depending on whether the City Council has specifically authorized the increase.
Accounts Commissioner Mark Seber said he would be reviewing minutes of old council meetings this morning to determine if the rate hike was approved by a resolution that had to be passed by that body. It had been figured into the budget passed at the beginning of this year, according to Seber and Finance Commissioner Sal Izzo.
The water bills are sent out twice a year, in March and September. The September bills have not been printed yet. Seber said the plan had been to print them soon and on Sept. 30 send them out with the 15 percent increase. That’s what Izzo, too, had thought was going to happen.
But that was before Public Works Commissioner Jack Messore told the Gazette Wednesday that the bills should not reflect an increase because the council has not approved one. He said the council would not be able to raise water rates until March 2009.
Informed of this, Izzo said that while he had thought the increase had been authorized by the council, Messore might be right.
Mechanicville, like Saratoga Springs, has an unusual commissioner form of government, in which City Council members also have executive roles in charge of their departments.
Seber said the Water Department is running at a deficit this year and being subsidized by the general fund, a practice frowned on by the state. If after research, it is found that there never was a vote on the increase, the general fund will continue to fund the department.
The state gave the city an interest-free, 30-year loan to build a new $5.7 million water plant in 2006, near its reservoir in Stillwater. The city hopes to sell more water to neighboring communities, but for that to happen the reservoir would need to be dredged to increase its capacity.
Izzo said unbudgeted expenses cropped up this year at the water plant, which is part of Messore’s department. They included the illness of the plant superintendent, requiring his temporary replacement. The larger problem, Izzo said, is that the city several years ago lost the Cascades paper mill as a customer. When the mill started buying water from Halfmoon, Izzo said, it put the city’s water budget in a hole.
Sewer rates are not slated to increase, and Izzo said an upcoming sewer reconstruction project, paid for with state and federal funds, will save the city money.
“I think the city’s in pretty good shape,” Izzo said, referring to the overall budget. He is hopeful that a tax increase can be avoided in the upcoming budget process, for the second year in a row. The city’s current surplus is about $1.2 million, Izzo said, and he would aim to retain about $500,000 in surplus funds by the end of next year.
One big future expense would be purchase of a new ladder truck, as requested by the Fire Department. That’s a likely $750,000 to $800,000 expense, Izzo said.
The commissioner said taxes went up 1 percent in 2007 and 3 percent in 2006.
Asked to explain the relatively low increases, Izzo said: “Our people are very prudent in their spending,” also noting work done by Saratoga County Supervisor Thomas Richardson and others in securing state and other grants for the city. Izzo also said Seber’s push to collect delinquent taxes has probably brought in more than $500,000 to the city this year that hadn’t been counted on.
Izzo estimated the average city tax bill at $1,200 per year, and the average annual water bill at $150-$200.
But in Mechanicville as in most municipalities, it is school district taxes that make up the biggest portion of local property tax bills.