With their latest quarterly water/sewer bills in hand, more than a dozen Ellicottville small business owners expressed concern that the “unexpected” increase in those bills will be a hardship on their bottom lines.
Owners of non-restaurant shops throughout the Village were united in their complaints at the Village Board meeting on Monday, July 8. They felt that the new rate, which averages $150 more per quarter than the new residential rate, “could break us,” given many shops’ “small profit margins.” Generally, people felt that their shops use far less water/sewer service than residential and other commercial customers use.
Mayor Charles Coolidge attempted to explain that the new system put in place was in response to a New York State Comptroller’s Office audit of the village billing system. The audit concluded that the old system was fraught with inconsistencies, many of which had evolved over time. Some commercial businesses (including those whose owners were in attendance) were being billed as residential properties; some multi-unit properties were getting bills for single dwellings, numerous under-billings were detected due to inaccurate meter readings, etc.
In the interest of fairness, and to eliminate inconsistencies, the board and its consultants carefully developed a new set of “Uniform Billing Practices” that included installing new, more accurate water meters in all single-family homes and commercial buildings, installing meters for each unit in multi-family homes, reclassifying commercial users based on meter sizes and establishing new minimum charges. The new rates, as Village Engineer Mike Smith explained to the group, are more equitable; usage beyond the minimum is based on meter readings.
The reclassification of commercial businesses that were being billed at residential rates increased the total number of commercial accounts in the village from 21 to 86. Commercial businesses that have 5/8” or 1” meters — the businesses that have low water usage — now have a minimum water rate of $90. The minimum rate for commercial businesses with high usage and 1.5” or larger meters is now $125 or $200. The residential minimum is $32.12.
For sewer, commercial users with the smaller meters now pay a minimum rate of $166.30. Large commercial entities pay at least $332.60. Residents pay a minimum of $66.52.
All users — residential and commercial alike — pay the same rate per gallon (water)/cubic foot (sewer) for usage above the minimum. Those rates increased by 5 percent.
Two new local laws related to the new water and sewer rates were passed on April 8 after public hearings on each were held to allow for public comment. No members of the public attended those hearings.
In total, the new laws will generate approximately $19,000-$20,000 in revenue for the village, which will be used to pay for infrastructure repairs needed to improve the aging systems.
Despite extensive coverage by this and other local newspapers on the topic, and published announcements about the public hearings, the business owners said they did not know about the new laws and that the board should not rely on the local print media as its sole source of communication with the public.
They also felt that the minimum rate they are now expected to pay as commercial users is “astronomical” and “way out of line” since they typically use less water/sewer service than residential customers. It was their perception that the village “is putting the onus on us” to pay for the village’s water/sewer infrastructure repairs. Collectively, they thought the board should consider reducing their minimums to a level more in line with residential rates.
As Smith explained, it is typical throughout the region and the state for commercial entities to pay a higher minimum rate than residential customers. He also noted that the village’s fees are still very low compared to other municipalities in the region.
At the end of the nearly 90-minute exchange, the board agreed to a request by the business owners to reexamine the water/sewer rates. However, any changes would require new laws and some board members were disinclined to start the lengthy process over again. The board did agree that using more communication methods would be advisable.
At its June meeting, the board declined to make a requested exception for a commercial entity to be treated as a residential property.
DPW Report: Harold Morton, DPW superintendent, asked the board for approval to purchase a new lawn mower from Lamb & Webster. Final cost after trade-in of the old equipment will be $4,650. The board approved the request. Morton also reported that his department had completed numerous tasks over the past month, including some road resurfacing on Mill and Martha streets, tree removal, water leak repair, meter reading, sewer plant maintenance, dig requests and more.
Constable’s Report: Village Constable Howard Gifford reported that he issued three traffic summonses, 11 verbal warnings and 12 parking tickets in June. He also answered two alarms and two calls on disorderly patrons at Kwik Fill. One $50 traffic ticket was paid.
Engineer’s Report: Village Engineer Mike Smith said the flood mapping consultant’s response to questions posed by FEMA is nearing completion. It is due back to FEMA on July 25. Smith also reported that progress is under way by the town’s engineer on relocating the east tank to a more suitable site and that the wastewater treatment plant overhaul plans are going smoothly.
Special Events Committee Report: The board approved road closure, tent set-up and other plans proposed by Committee Chair Patra Lowes for Ellicottville’s Jazz Fest, Taste of Ellicottville and Rock N’ Roll Weekend. Changes in plans for Fall Fest are still confidential pending new policies and strategies that are being considered for enhanced security and event control. Lowes asked that the village building inspector hold off on issuing tent permits for Fall Fest until final policy decisions are made.
The next meeting of the Village Board will be held Aug. 12 at 6 p.m. in the Village/Town Hall.