The Lake Auburn water treatment plant seen in 2012. Jose Leiva/Sun Journal file photo

AUBURN — A disagreement between Lewiston and Auburn over water costs has bubbled to the surface after an official complaint was filed with the Public Utilities Commission.

The complaint, which was filed using the PUC’s 10-person complaint process, claims that current water rates for Auburn Water District customers are unfair due to the nature of cost-sharing agreements between Lewiston and Auburn.

The process requires the signatures of at least 10 people to file a complaint.

The two cities, over the past 30 years, have signed more than a dozen cost-sharing agreements related to delivering water to customers from Lake Auburn.

The complaint comes as officials from both cities have been in monthslong discussions over the cost-sharing agreements after the debate was revived last year.

Most of the agreements, dating back several years, call for a 50/50 split between the cities for expenses relating to the Lake Auburn treatment facility and watershed protection efforts.

The Auburn Water District trustees believe that costs should be set based on water usage. Lewiston accounts for about 64% of water drawn from the lake, while Auburn accounts for 36%.

According to Sid Hazelton, Auburn Water District superintendent, some expenses relating to water treatment, like chemicals that are easy to track, are based on usage.

However, most other expenses relating to water quality, including the salaries of employees at the treatment plant and the Lake Auburn Watershed Protection Commission, are split evenly.

The costs also include funding Bates College research, erosion control and a gull management program. In 2019, the two cities split the cost of an aluminum-sulfate treatment at the lake to lower the level of algae-producing phosphorus.

The cost-sharing debate was reignited in July 2020, when the Auburn Water District trustees voted to direct staff to contact Lewiston water officials in order to “renegotiate cost sharing of all interlocal agreements to be reflective of water usage rather than the current 50-50 split.”

It set off months of correspondence between the two cities and their respective water departments.

The trustees have argued that if the cost-sharing agreements were based on water use, some of Auburn’s expenses would be shifted to Lewiston, thus allowing Auburn to lower rates for customers.

In response to the 10-person complaint, the PUC will decide to either open a public investigation, or dismiss it.

Lewiston officials issued a formal response to the complaint Wednesday, arguing that the city has “negotiated in a fair and open manner” with Auburn and that both cities benefit from the shared water system.

A view of Route 4 and the public boat launch on Lake Auburn in 2017. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo 

In the letter, Public Works Director Mary Ann Brenchick requests that the PUC “dismiss this complaint, without merit.”

In December, Lewiston administration sent a letter to the Auburn Water District in response to its request to review the cost-sharing agreements.

The letter said the City Council reviewed “the context, spirit, and logic” behind the agreements when they were established, and looked at what might have changed in the years following.

“The council concluded that there has been no appreciable change in the context and therefore the logic and spirit should remain unchanged,” the letter said. “At this time, the Lewiston City Council does not see a compelling reason to revisit the structure of the agreements.”

In a separate response to the PUC complaint on Thursday, the Auburn Water District trustees said they disagree that no appreciable changes have occurred since the agreements were made.

“Costs have risen exponentially since 1999,” the letter said. “The scope of water quality management efforts has grown to include new costs. Gull management expenses, for example, were not anticipated when the (1999) memorandum of understanding between the parties set the stage for the 50/50 cost sharing framework for water quality management.”

The letter response to the PUC goes on to say that if the city of Lewiston refuses to negotiate, the Auburn Water District “will consider all legal options under one or more of these interlocal agreements.”

Dale Doughty, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator, said Lewiston officials believe the structure is appropriate, and that from the beginning it has benefited both cities.

He said officials “are trying to understand what’s changed from that long tradition.”

Brenchick’s response to the complaint argues that the current agreements are “fair and equitable to both entities,” and states that “the cost benefits of a shared system far outweigh the cost of a separate water system for each community.”

The complaint over water rates is just the latest maneuver following years of debate over how to manage Lake Auburn and its larger watershed.

Last month, the Auburn City Council hired a team of consultants to conduct a comprehensive study of the ordinances governing Lake Auburn.

The study, initially proposed in August, is meant to add data to the perennial debate over watershed protections surrounding the lake, and what the current financial and environmental impacts of the rules are.

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