Fixing the city’s aging water infrastructure is a better use of fees collected from new water customers than developing an alternate drinking water source at Saratoga Lake, Commissioner of Public Works Anthony “Skip” Scirocco said Wednesday.
Currently, revenue from new water hookups can only be used to find a new public water source for the city, according to a City Council resolution passed in 1999, he said.
Since the beginning of 2000, the city has earned $2.5 million in new water tap fees, more than covering the $1.6 million it spent in that time on engineering and legal fees for the proposed Saratoga Lake water project.
But is that money well-spent?
“I’m looking right now to maybe change the legislation to maybe use some of the money to upgrade the infrastructure in the city that needs to be upgraded,” Scirocco said.
For example, he’d like to replace the 4-inch water mains in the city’s older residential neighborhoods with larger pipes that are more suitable for fighting fires. Fire hydrants with red caps in the city have only a 4-inch water main, he said.
In January, city firefighters had to hunt for a hydrant with enough water pressure to put out a Grand Avenue apartment building fire because the main along that street is only 4 inches.
The building was destroyed. The fire chief said at the time that firefighters couldn’t have saved the building even if they had a suitable hydrant close by.
Still, after determining exactly where and how many small pipes exist Scirocco wants to upgrade the pipes to 8 inches. He said Broadway and the downtown business corridors have larger mains, as do newer residential areas on the city’s outskirts.
But the older neighborhoods still rely on the old pipes.
“The city has a lot of 4-inch water mains,” Scirocco said.
City officials favoring the Saratoga Lake water plan have noted that the new customer tap fees, rather than water usage bills or property taxes, have funded the engineering and legal fees associated with the project.
But as building slows, revenue from tap fees has decreased, from $448,950 in 2000 to $226,500 in 2007, according to public works records supplied to The Daily Gazette from a Freedom of Information Law request.
Meanwhile, the water fund — supported by usage rates and not the tap fees — sported a $175,702 deficit at the end of last year, which is why city officials want to raise water usage fees this year.
“The numbers here are based on water usage. Obviously, we’re not using as much water as they’ve anticipated that we’re going to use,” Scirocco said.
So, tapping Saratoga Lake still seems superfluous to the Republican commissioner despite a state Court of Appeals decision last week not to hear the argument by Saratoga Lake Association and Saratoga Lake Protection and Improvement District, organizations opposed to the project.
The decision allows the city to go ahead with seeking Department of Environmental Conservation approval for the project.
Scirocco said doing so is not a priority for him. “Not to say that it’s totally off my radar screen, because it’s not,” he said.
And some water customers would like to see the tap fees fund operations, rather than the council passing on another water-rate increase.
“The City Council could just as well vote to use some of that money to defray the operations cost, and therefore we would not have to have as big an increase in water rates,” resident Wilma Koss said Thursday. Koss, president of Saratoga Lake Association, has been against the plan to tap the lake.
“I think everyone recognizes now that there’s not a need for water on a regular basis. Water usage is flat even with the increase in building,” Koss said. That’s because builders install more water-efficient appliances when constructing new homes and businesses. City residents will face another rate hike next year after the county starts charging the city $1 million a year to finance debt service on its new $52.2 million sewer expansion, Scirocco said. “There’s going to be an increase in your sewer bill next year. It has nothing to do with the city.”
County officials have said the average sewer district user will pay an extra $50 per year, up from the average rate now of about $144 per year.