Montgomery County eyes water rate hike for jail

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie

The Montgomery County Legislature on Tuesday will vote on a $50,000 budget transfer to cover a large hike in the sewer and water fees the county pays for its jail.

The county purchases its water and sewer service from the town of Glen, which is supplied its water by the village of Fultonville. The county originally budgeted $125,000 for the 2020 budget for the service, which was less than county Executive Matt Ossenfort’s original request of $150,000.

The legislature’s finance committee discussed the cost increase at its Sept. 15 meeting.

Ossenfort told the finance committee there isn’t much the county can do beyond what it’s already doing to reduce the water costs at the jail.

“It’s a frustrating topic because we did bump up that line item, and then it was reduced during the budget discussions last year with the hope that we wouldn’t have as big an increase — because a 400 percent increase is quite a wallop to our costs up there at the jail,” Ossenfort said.

The water rate increase dates back to July 2019 when Glen increased its water rates for the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, citing the need to compensate for a 2018 Fultonville water rate hike.

“We now need to pass this 400 percent rate increase to our water users,” reads a notice of water rate increase sent from Glen to Montgomery County in 2019. “The new water rates will be effective with your July 2019 water bill.”

According to the notice from the town, the old water rate had been $57.90 as the minimum charge for the first 7,500 gallons, and the new rate is $225 for the first 7,500 gallons of water used. The new water rate includes a 3 cent per gallon charge after the first 7,500 gallons, up substantially from the old rate which was 2/3 of a penny per gallon after the first 7,500 gallons.

District 4 Legislator Robert Headwell, who served as Fultonville mayor from 2000 to 2015, asked why the money can’t come out of the public safety budget.

“It’s not like we’re talking about a building that has the entire county in it, this is pretty much just public safety,” he said. “We went from about $3,000 a month to about $13,000 per month, so this is huge. This is not just a little bit of an increase. This is a lot.”

District 2 Legislator Brian Sweet said he doesn’t understand why the rate increase is only now being brought to the attention of the legislature.

“This was effective July 2019, so were we not aware of this 400 percent increase?” Sweet asked.

“We were aware, and we did budget for this year more — as the resolution says my budget had $150,000 and it was brought down to $125,000 — so, we were aware,” Ossenfort said. “But again there was some hope and at the time we were like ‘There’s no way this will actually go’ and then we had discussions, and there were discussions that this would go [away], and we went with the $125,000, but as we move forward there’s no hope this is going to change.”

Sweet said he didn’t understand what could justify the rate increase.

“So, refresh my memory, what can cause a 400 percent increase?” he said.

“Essentially, it goes from village to the town of Glen and then onto us,” Ossenfort said. “It was just a rate increase in the village.”

“I need to look into that,” Sweet said.

Ossenfort said the origin of the hike could be traced to “some new people coming into office” and the county had hoped it wouldn’t be subject to the same increases as residential users, but that didn’t come to pass.

One person who came into office that had some influence on the rate change was Fultonville Mayor Linda Peterson Law, who replaced former district 4 legislator Ryan Weitz, Headwell’s hand-picked successor as the village mayor, in 2017; that was when Weitz, longtime village clerk-treasurer Tom DiMezza and his wife — Kathy DiMezza, the deputy clerk — all resigned amid a village board led by Peterson demanding changes to what board members alleged were clandestine budget maneuvers, particularly involving the village’s water and waste treatment plant.

Law on Sunday night said she doesn’t know why Glen raised its rates by 400 percent in July 2019 or why the county has waited until now to address the increase, but she outlined what her village’s rationale was for raising the water rates back in 2018.

Law said that in 2018, after meetings and a public hearing, Fultonville adopted new water rates to provide more transparency in billing.

“We also had our residents and business install new water meters which provide more accuracy and provide us and our residents with reports and monitoring in case they have a leak, etc.,” she said. “This was in 2018, and 99 percent of all of our village customers, commercial and residential, saw a decrease in their bills. One year prior to this, without reaching out to Fultonville for guidance, the town of Glen installed new water meters for Water District 1 and Water District 2.”

Law said back during the village’s fiscal year 2014-15 all of the village’s water users saw a rate increase, but the town of Glen and its users received no rate increase.

“The town of Glen purchases water from Fultonville guided by an agreement drawn up in 1996,” Law said. “That agreement allows Fultonville to raise the rates, as I told [Glen Supervisor] John Thomas after the rate hike. We invited them in writing to the public hearing.”

Law said the 1996 agreement between the town and village had “ridiculously low water rates” including: $1.655 for up to 50,000 gallons, $1.555 for up to 150,000 gallons and $1.455 for 250,000 gallons or more with a multiplier of 1.95 on the total.

“We raised rates across the board to $7.15 per 1,000 gallons,” she said. “We did meet with the town of Glen board about a year ago, and my board considered and has discussed the issue, but it did not appear that the town would pass along any rate reduction to customers and, also, since they missed the fact that we raised the rates for months, they were put in a bad financial situation.”

Law said the village permitted the town to install new water meters without the village’s consent, but the village required the meters to be read from a distance digitally, “via antenna.”

She said there was a problem with the system, which is likely the origin of the 400 percent rate increase.

“To complicate matters, the meter rep programmed an incorrect formula in their meters which was not discovered until three or four months ago, so what they had said was a 400 percent raise in rates initially, is actually an increase of 100 percent,” she said. “Because of this error, we have been crediting them, since the mistake was discovered, I believe our credits have so far been over $5,000 and will continue until all losses are accommodated.”

She said she can’t entirely account for why the town needs more money from the county.

“We don’t meter the town of Glen customers, the town does and we don’t set the rates they assign their customers,” she said. “In addition, I don’t know what meters their customers use, nor their efficiency or accuracy. I do believe the jail is a big volume user, but they may also have leaky pipes, faucets, toilets, etc.”

The county legislature is set to vote on the budget transfer and other items at its September meeting Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

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