LEWISTON — After months with no formal response, the city is officially wading into a debate over water cost-sharing agreements with Auburn.

A resolution approved Tuesday by the City Council directs city administration to enter into discussions with Auburn over a request to review the two cities’ previous agreements over sharing costs associated with delivering water to customers.

The decision from Lewiston officials comes as an official complaint process continues to move through the Public Utilities Commission, spearheaded by Auburn ratepayers who argue the current water rates for Auburn Water District customers are unfair.

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%.

The cost-sharing debate was ignited 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, but this is the first formal action taken by Lewiston officials.

The resolution authorizes city administration to discuss the requested changes with Auburn Water District Superintendent Sid Hazelton, and directs administration to advise the City Council of the desired changes and the reasons for them.

Lewiston’s resolution states that the agreements, which have been in effect since 1993, “have worked well to save the ratepayers located in both the city of Lewiston and city of Auburn significant costs that the cities would otherwise have incurred to protect and provide drinking water to its citizens.”

“The (agreements) provide for various cost-sharing formulas between the Auburn Water District and the city of Lewiston based on the circumstances at the time they were agreed to, including the investments and expenses to be incurred,” it states, adding, “the City Council is not aware of any need to make changes” to the agreements, “but is willing to consider any requests for the changes as long as there is a sound basis for the same.”

The Auburn water 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 May, Lewiston officials approved a 23% water rate increase for customers — the first in eight years. But, officials argued that Lewiston rates still fall among average rates statewide.

The PUC case is still unfolding. On June 21, a PUC order requested that Hazelton comment on whether each utility had “taken adequate steps to remove the cause of the complaint.”

In his response, filed Tuesday, Hazelton said “AWD’s general grievance regarding the unreasonableness of certain cost-sharing arrangements has previously been brought to (the Lewiston water division) and considered by the Lewiston City Council, which have rejected invitations to renegotiate the cost sharing provisions.”

He also said, “AWD has been considering all legal options to force (Lewiston water) to renegotiate the offending interlocal agreements with regard to their cost-sharing arrangements.”

Asked Tuesday about the delay in Lewiston’s formal response to the matter, Heather Hunter, Lewiston’s interim city administrator, said, “My understanding of the situation was administration was waiting for the (Auburn Water District) to provide information that may have led to reevaluating the cost apportionment.”

“The council wanted to formalize the request,” she added.

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