Stewart Water Fee Increase Debate Deepens

In the debate around Republican Mayor Erin Stewart’s plan to increase water rates, despite her promise not to increase taxes, Democratic Ald. Manny Sanchez (D-3) has responded to the Republican mayor’s defense of her proposal.

Stewart has cited ongoing water infrastructure projects, decreasing revenues and that water rates have not increased recently as reasons for her water rate increase.

Sanchez said the fact that water rates have not increased recently is a good thing but said that, “the fact that they have not increased does not justify raising them now. We should not lose focus that the proposed budget is already asking our residents to bear a sewer rate increase.” Stewart’s budget plan also increases sewer rates, paid on same bill as water fees, by 9.3%. Stewart’s budget proposals would bring increases in water and sewer charges under her administration up by $3,965,297 since the 2014 budget year.

Sanchez said that the city’s water fees have historically generated surpluses. Responding to Stewart’s claim that decreasing revenues justify the rate increase Sanchez added that, “The drought is over, and the City has lifted the water use restrictions, and revenue should rebound.”

Stewart has come under heavy criticism for not disclosing severe drought conditions while she pressed for and received approval from the Republican dominated City Council to sell off New Britain’s 1.2 million gallon per day potential Patton Brook drinking water well to Southington.

The delayed announcement by Stewart is widely believed to have exacerbated New Britain’s water shortage to such severe levels that the city was forced to take the step, without recent precedent, of having to purchase water from the Hartford-area water authority, known as the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC).

A City Council resolution approved in April placed the cost of purchasing MDC water at approximately $400,000, nearly as much as the estimated $535,000 that Sanchez cited Stewart’s water rate increase as generating.

The sale of the Patton Brook Well is one of two water-related issues that concern both the City of New Britain and the Town of Southington. Stewart has also been pressing forward with a controversial proposal to allow the Tilcon corporation to strip-mine a large area of New Britain’s drinking watershed lands. The proximity of the proposed strip mining to Southington and Crescent Lake in Southington have made gaining the Town of Southington’s support for the plan a significant part of the lobbying campaign in favor of it.

But Stewart suggested that Sanchez’s initiative against the water rate increase would “put the quality of our water at risk”. To this Sanchez responded that, “With all due respect, there is nothing in my proposal that jeopardizes clean and safe water. We absolutely have an obligation to provide clean and safe water to our residents. My point is that maybe we can tighten our belt, find funds elsewhere and not have to burden our residents with additional taxes/increases.”