Jacksonville resident Sharon Fournier was shocked when she got the news that an extra $70 per quarter would be charged to her water and sewer bill.
Starting in the second quarter of 2021, all 1,135 residential sewer customers of the Bath Borough Authority, which serves Bath, portions of East Allen Township, and portions of Upper Nazareth Township, will be billed a $70 surcharge per quarter. The Authority’s 415 commercial and industrial customers will be billed a $70 surcharge per quarter per EDU. In some instances, like in the case of Fournier, her July 31 bill will show an increase of 50 percent.
News of the surcharge was published in a spring 2021 special edition of the Bath Borough Authority newsletter. While the surcharge was also announced at preceding Bath Borough Authority public meetings, for many residents like Fournier, the newsletter was the first time they heard of the fee.
The surcharge, the borough authority said in a May press release, was imposed to “satisfy [the Authority’s] financial obligation to construct the new sewer plant which was mandated by the DEP.”
In 2009, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection mandated that the Authority construct a new sewer plant to replace its existing one, which was built in 1965. That plant had a capacity of 300,000 gallons per day. Due to an increase in demand, the plant was expanded in 1990. But by 2013, it was clear to the Authority that the existing system, even if renovated, could not economically meet the demands imposed by the DEP.
Construction began in 2019, with the plant expected to go online later this spring. The new plant has a capacity of 510,000 gallons per day and features piping upgrades, a UV disinfection system, a rotary press, two batch reactor tanks, two aerobic digester tanks, an equalization tank, and a control building.
“The new plant will provide more quality service to the Authority’s customers,” the newsletter states.
The total cost for the new plant was over $14 million. About $1 million was paid by the Authority’s reserves. The remaining costs were covered by a loan from the USDA Rural Utilities Service.
The surcharge, the Authority states in their press releases, was “not a decision the Authority took lightly.” All members of the Authority’s board are also Bath residents and subject to the surcharge. Even with the surcharge, they added, their rates are in line with other rates in the Lehigh Valley.
“We never really thought about…‘It’s a new plant, how are we going to pay for it?’’’ admitted Fournier. “[But] you [the Authority] are a government agency. You are taking money from the people, you need to be more transparent.”
Fournier also takes issue with how long the loan will last.
“I’m not as frustrated with the surcharge as I am in the fact that there seems to be no end date for this loan payoff,” she said.
Jane Meckes, of Bath, was also shocked by the news. Her current bill is around $85. The surcharge will nearly double it.
“This is crazy,” she said. “I don’t mind paying a little, but $70 is ridiculous.”
Meckes and her husband, both retired, are on a fixed income. “We live paycheck to paycheck as it is.”
Meckes and Fournier were among several of the frustrated residents who reached out to the Authority, their township and borough representatives, and even their state representatives once news of the surcharge broke.
“This is really an unfair burden,” Meckes wrote in a letter to State Senator Mario Scavello. “With the way things are right now, who can afford this?”
“I can understand how shocking it must have been to find this out,” Senator Scavello replied. “I’m at least glad that they sent out the pamphlet. Oftentimes authorities don’t even do that and just include a tiny line at the end of a bill.”
Scavello added that, had he been aware the Authority was looking for funding, “I would have done everything I could to help them locate and secure funding to help with the cost and lessen the burden on ratepayers.”
Meckes also contacted Bath Mayor Fiorella Mirabito. Mayor Mirabito, Borough Manager Brad Flynn, and members of council have all been contacted by residents.
“All of us here at the office…can understand the surcharge is a shock to everyone’s system,” Flynn stated in a video released shortly after the surcharge was announced. He said the Authority is made up of “reasonable” people who would be more than willing to answer questions and work with residents.
The borough’s mayor, officials, or council members have no oversight over the Bath Borough Authority. That is because, despite its name, the Authority became a separate entity from the Borough in 1984.
“The members of Bath Borough Council, nor I, have absolutely no decision-making power with the Bath Water Authority,” Mayor Mirabito said in a statement. “While I completely understand the need for a new plant, state mandates, and the need to increase rates, I feel their legal team should have advised them to give at least one year’s notice of the intended increase…to everyone under their umbrella. Please know, I am extremely grateful for the work the Authority does and the continued assistance they give to the Borough of Bath.”
Bath Councilman Tony Kovalovsky spoke up during council’s May 3 meeting. He mentioned that engineering issues during the beginning of the project, which cannot publicly be discussed due to a gag order from Northampton County, more than doubled the cost of the plant.
“It is unfortunate we [the Authority and Board] cannot discuss [what happened] prior,” he said.
However, he added that the Authority is willing to work with residents to put together a payment plan.
“People who are having trouble should contact the Authority,” he said.
The Authority echoed this in their press release. The release states that the Authority is looking for ways to possibly reduce the amount of the surcharge. They have also offered monthly payment arrangements to help customers pay their bills. Finally, the Authority has also begun exploring ways to improve transparency with residents through an annual or semi-annual newsletter.
However, the Authority stands by the fact that the surcharge was needed.
“While the Authority appreciates its customers’ concerns over this surcharge, the increase is required by the need to fund the construction of this new sewer plant which was mandated by the DEP.”
The Authority’s next public meeting will be held on May 19 at 7 p.m. at the Bath Borough Authority Office at 160 Mill St. in Bath. Members of the public are invited to attend to get the latest news on the new plant and learn more about the payment options available.