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What you need to know for 04/23/2017

St. Johnsville may shut off water to late payers

St. Johnsville may shut off water to late payers

St. Johnsville village officials are tired of residents defaulting on their water bills.

St. Johnsville village officials are tired of residents defaulting on their water bills.

Over the past year, roughly 40 water and sewer customers in the village system racked up $86,000 in missed payments. That put a big dent in the sewer and water district’s $537,000 annual budgets, and village leaders say they’ve had enough.

“The last thing we want to do is switch off someone’s water,” said deputy mayor and village Trustee Martin Callahan. “People need their water, but eventually we’ll have to.”

For more than a century, the village held the right to shut off water flow to delinquent customers. A village law passed in 1912 granted that power, but in Callahan’s memory the village never used it. Now, he said, the village is looking to exercise its power.

“We can’t keep going like this,” he said.

At a recent village meeting, board members batted around ideas for compelling dozens of residents to pay their water bills. They’ll meet again March 4 to iron out the details.

Treasurer Karen Crouse laid out the problem. The current system works on a basic framework. Every six months, the 693 village water and sewer customers get a bill. If they don’t pay one bill, it’s added to the next.

“If they don’t pay that one,” she said, “it all gets added onto their property tax bill.”

Mixed in are some small late fees. The system works — just very slowly.

“Two years down the line we see the money,” Callahan said. “We can’t budget like that.”

Crouse said the village always dealt with some missed water bills, but it didn’t always add up to $86,000 a year. She blames the sluggish local economy. Callahan had a more specific culprit: taxes.

St. Johnsville gets its water from a watershed to the north in Fulton County. Crouse said it’s great water. The village has won state awards for drinking water flavor, but the arrangement is more expensive now than it used to be.

Six years ago, Callahan said, Fulton County reassessed a slew of land parcels, including the watershed that supplies St. Johnsville. The village ended up paying more taxes, which rolled over into water fees.

Before the tax hike, Callahan said, he paid roughly $600 a year to supply his family of five with water and sewer service. Now his bill is near $1,100 a year.

He said he feels for other customers, but said the village can no longer handle the loss. Finances are tight in St. Johnsville. The water district recently had to shell out $450,000 for new water meters.

The winter’s statewide jump in power costs also hit the village. Late last year it was paying $6,000 a month for power at the wastewater treatment plant. Now the village is paying $10,000.

“We had no warning,” he said.

Unexpected costs must be borrowed from the village general fund, which isn’t sustainable, officials said. Crafting a tighter budget, Crouse said, requires more financial surety.

With that in mind, the village is looking to move up the late payment timeline — hopefully getting its money in less than two years.

The board will be meeting March 4 to discuss possible fixes, but Callahan said there’s basically one weapon in the village arsenal: supply.

The 1912 village law allowing for water to be shut off needs some updating. Callahan said the Village Board will have to draft the legal steps required to shut off a customer’s water — deciding how long people will be allowed to go without paying. The new system will take a year to fully implement.

“We’ll let people know,” he said. “We won’t just shut it off. They’ll know we’re coming.”

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