LEWISTON — A 20 percent water rate hike is too much at this time, residents told City Councilors Tuesday.
"I'm truly upset that you want to raise water rates by 20 percent," said Jacqueline Smith of Willow Circle. "Twenty percent! In this day and age, when most people are on a fixed income or haven't gotten a 2 percent raise in years, you people want a 20 percent increase? We have to tighten our budgets. Why can't you tighten your budget?"
Councilors approved the proposed rate hike by a 5-2 vote, with Councilors Mark Cayer and Richard Desjardins opposing it. Councilor Nate Libby was absent from Tuesday's meeting and Mayor Robert Macdonald cast the seventh vote.
The new rates take effect in July.
The proposed increase would boost household water rates for an average single family home using 1,200 gallons of water from $38.40 per quarter to $45.60. Lewiston's current quarterly rate is about $1 less than Bangor's rate, $10 less than Portland's rate and $11 less than Brunswick's quarterly rate.
The proposed would make Lewiston's quarterly rate slightly higher than that of Portland.
Lewiston last increased water rates in 2010.
The proposed 20 percent water rate increase is designed to stave off a $654,555 projected deficit next year. It's also designed to cover increased costs from the new Lake Auburn Ultraviolet Water Treatment system and pay for increased electrical rates from Central Maine Power, according to Public Works Director Dave Jones.
Jones said that there is little room for meaningful cuts in the budget that wouldn't either affect water quality at the tap or at the source.
"We could not replace our cast iron pipes, but that's the source of the brown and red water folks complain about," Jones said. "We're trying to replace those, but we don't do enough now. Or we could not fund the bird control we are doing out at Lake Auburn, but that would generate a federal requirement to build a filtration plant."
The department and the Auburn Water District share a federal waiver from having to filter the municipal water that comes from Lake Auburn, since it has been deemed clean. Losing that waiver would require building an expensive treatment plant, and Jones said that could triple Lewiston's water rates.
"There just is not as much flexibility as you might think," Jones said.
But former City Councilor Tom Peters said there must be a way to reduce those rates, and he urged the city to find it.
"Landlords cannot afford to have the rates go up," Peter said. "They can't fix their buildings now, and they can't afford to do the stuff they have to do."