Helmsburg sewer rates rising; public hearing this week

HELMSBURG — If you pay a sewer bill to the Helmsburg Regional Sewage District, be prepared to pay a lot more.

This week, the district’s board of directors will conduct a public hearing on raising minimum sewer rates from $45 to $70 per month.

The reason is that Brown County Water Utility is raising its bill-handling rates on the sewer district, said John Young, attorney for the district.

The amount that BCWU had been charging the Helmsburg district to handle the billing was $3.50 per month, per customer, he said. That billing charge is going up to $10.25 per month, per customer, and the sewer district can’t cover it without raising its sewer rates.

The district has about 60 customers, Young said. The minimum sewer rates had been the same since 2001, and they were set based on the district’s fixed costs.

“This is directly due to the water utility raising its rates on us as the billing agent,” Young said.

“The sewer board members live in Helmsburg. That’s their rates, too, so it’s not like they’re eager to be paying more, but we have to keep up so we don’t fall in a hole,” he added.

For every part of 1,000 gallons used over the 2,000-gallon minimum, sewer customers pay $20 per month. The sewer board isn’t proposing to change that rate.

The sewer board already voted to raise the minimum rate in March, according to a legal advertisement in last week’s paper. The public hearing, set for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19 at Helmsburg Community Church, is a legally required process before the change actually can be made.

Young said it would be at least a month after the hearing before any new rate would go into effect.

He said BCWU’s billing charge will be going up for Gnaw Bone sewage customers, too. Brown County Water Utility also handles the billing for the Gnaw Bone Regional Sewage District, and Young’s law firm also handles the Gnaw Bone district’s affairs.

In the meantime, the Helmsburg district is looking into other, cheaper ways to handle its billing, Young said.

Right now, sewer and water service are billed together through BCWU. A meter on the house records how much water was used, and that number of gallons is what determines the sewer bill, Young said.

“Obviously, if we are able to contract with somebody else (for billing), we can immediately lower rates. … That is just a dramatic increase,” Young said.

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Several residents who attended the April 11 Helmsburg Community Development Corp. meeting were unaware of that the minimum sewer charge was going to go from $45 to $70. The Helmsburg sewage district was on the community meeting’s agenda because a couple of customers already felt that their bills were too high.

Carolyn Allen said she paid $197 for one month of water and sewer service, and there are only two people living in her house. Neighbor Rebecca Richards said she’d heard her bill was going up by $5 and she wasn’t happy about that. Other people in the room suggested that maybe hidden water leaks were to blame.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me, if we want to increase people coming here (to live in Helmsburg), why we don’t have control over how much our water and sewer bills are costing us?” Richards asked.

No one who currently sits on the Helmsburg Regional Sewage District Board attended the community meeting to explain the increase, but former board member Virginia White did mention that BCWU was charging more for billing.

BCWU Office/Administration Manager Ellen Masteller said that the company has provided full-service billing for the Helmsburg and Gnaw Bone sewer districts for 18 years and has never increased its charges. She said BCWU’s cost of service has gone up.

“BCWU does know that it will cover its cost for the services we provide and is revenue-neutral,” she wrote, in response to a question about how much more revenue the water company would be getting from raising fees on Helmsburg and Gnaw Bone sewer customers.

Harrietta Weddle, longtime member of the Helmsburg Regional Sewage District Board, said the board’s advisers had been telling her for some time that sewer rates needed to go up. Not everyone pays their bills every month, and when that happens, Weddle is the one who has to follow up, she said.

“They told me for years, you’re going to have to raise rates, and I kept thinking, ‘I know.’ Well, the water company just forced me to. We were going nowhere fast,” she said.

Not all of the increased monthly fees will be going to Brown County Water Utility to cover the billing costs, Weddle said, but she didn’t know how much yet. She hopes some of that money can be held back for use by the sewer district.

She said she didn’t anticipate the Helmsburg sewer plant needing immediate work, describing it as “running really well.”

“We’ve got very little debt right now, just making ends meet, and we’re still hanging in there,” she said.

Jim Kemp, president of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission, said the sewer system is going to have to be discussed as Helmsburg tries to reinvent itself.

The community needs new residents to attract businesses, and both residents and businesses need sewer service that is affordable, he told residents.

“We can’t build any development until we look at this,” he said.

If you go

What: Public hearing on raising Helmsburg Regional Sewage District minimum rates

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19

Where: Helmsburg Community Church

Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.