Already facing a $25,875 state fine because two town workers butchered deer at a pump house, Rowley’s Water Department is proposing a 33 percent increase in water rates to pay for a new $12 million treatment plant.
Most homeowners would be charged $14.91 per 1,000 gallons of usage beginning July 1, compared with the current $11.25 rate for the town’s 1,500 residential customers, according to the Water Department.
“We used to pay maybe $400 per year,” said homeowner Donna Murphy, 52, who has three children. “Now we’re getting bills for $100 each month. It’s ridiculous.”
The rate increase is a key source of revenue in the department’s $2.1 million budget request for next fiscal year; it will be submitted to selectmen Monday.
“We have to meet expenses,” the Water Department’s superintendent, John Rezza, said in an interview Friday. “It’s really the water plant” driving the rate increase, he said.
In October 2010 , the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered Rowley to build the plant to comply with drinking water regulations. High E. coli counts had been found in water samples. The plant is under construction off Route 133 and is scheduled for completion in February, according to a project outline posted at www.rowleywater.com.
Most of the project is being financed with a $10.9 million low-interest loan from the State Revolving Fund, set up to assist pollution-abatement efforts. The first debt payment, totaling $792,627, is due in August, according to town officials.
The town last year raised rates by 45 percent — from $7.75 per 1,000 gallons to $11.25 — to pay the debt.
The resulting spike in water bills blindsided some local residents.
“It seemed like the rates went up overnight,” said Blaise Crotty, 62, a homeowner. “It’s all to pay for the new water system.”
The increase included in the department’s budget proposal comes at a time of new public scrutiny of the Water Department by state and local officials.
The state Department of Environmental Protection on March 21 fined the town $25,875 after the two water plant operators, who have since resigned from their jobs, admitted to butchering three deer at the Boxford Road pumping station.
Meanwhile, the Board of Selectmen has notified the state inspector general’s office of alleged violations of state bidding and procurement laws related to the construction of a $140,000 garage at the Water Department’s headquarters at 401 Central St.
“They gave us guidance on handling questionable invoices,” Town Administrator Debbie Eagan wrote in an e-mail.
The inspector general’s office regulates the state’s public bidding and procurement laws. Spokesman Jack Meyers said the agency does not comment on investigations or communications to local communities.
The questionable spending includes $12,164 owed to an electrical contractor in Manchester-by-the-Sea, purchase of a $584 electric stove, and a $99 coffee maker for the new addition, according to the town’s letter to the inspector general’s office.
In addition to two bays to park vehicles, the garage has a full-size kitchen, lounge, bathroom with a shower, and office space outfitted with new furniture, according to the letter.
“It looked like an in-law apartment to me,” said Bob Snow, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, who led fellow board members on a tour of the facility in December. “That’s not what was authorized by the Town Meeting.”
Selectmen have since increased oversight of the Water Department. Snow and vice chairman Robert Merry will work on a new committee, along with the three water commissioners, to review operations. The group, established last Monday, had yet to meet, Snow said.
Water commissioners Timothy Toomey and Roy Ricker did not return calls seeking comment. Scott Martin, a 12-year veteran of the panel who is not seeking reelection this spring, could not be reached.
Rezza, the water superintendent for 15 years, declined to comment on the new financial scrutiny. The Water Department provides services to all of Rowley’s roughly 5,800 residents, except for about 400 homes that have private wells.
Rezza called the deer butchering incident “quite an event” that “is still being worked out,” but declined further comment.
The state Environmental Police charged Jason Masse, 31, and Jason Kneeland, 37, with three counts each of illegal possession of deer. The two resigned their jobs as water pump operators on March 13. They are due to be arraigned in Newburyport District Court on April 23.
The DEP fined the town $25,875 over the potential endangering of the public water supply. Water samples indicated no risk to public health, but one town resident is angry about the incident.
“It could have created a health hazard,” said John Murtagh, 55, a homeowner who has a private well and is not tied into the town’s water system. “We’re all taxpayers. They’re going to expect taxpayer money to pay this fine. I think the town should try to recoup the money from these two guys.”
Neither Masse nor Kneeland could be reached for comment.
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