Describing a proposed water rate increase of 83 percent as "outrageous" and "inconceivable," Milford residents and officials blasted the request at a public hearing Wednesday.
The hearing filled the top floor of Milford Town Hall to beyond-seating capacity. Nearly 300 people attended. Residents stood along the windows of the meeting space, and many took seats in the balcony section.
In comments, frustrated residents said they felt trapped by a private water utility that is their only source for drinking water.
"The Milford Water Company is a monopoly," said Mary Langford. "We don't have another water company to turn to. It's a huge problem. I'm appalled. That's it."
Another resident, Mark Cabral, pointed out that Water Company customers will get hit twice by the increase, with increased home bills and taxes, because the town will pass on its higher water bills to property owners.
"They already hit us once, and now they're hitting us again," he said.
The public hearing was organized by the state Department of Public Utilities, which has authority to either grant, reduce, or deny the proposed rate increase.
State Rep. John Fernandes (D-Milford) drew applause from the audience when he criticized the company's application. “It is inconceivable that any credible business would come to its customers and say, ‘We raised our prices by 33 percent a couple years ago, and we need to raise them again by 83 percent. Keep buying our water'," Fernandes said. "It’s just not credible.”
Fernandes said he and state Sen. Richard T. Moore (D-Uxbridge) share the view that the suggested water rate increase is, in one word, “outrageous.”
Town officials noted that with the sluggish economy and working- to middle-class demographics of the town, the increase would be too much for many residents. They criticized the management of Milford Water Company, since the 2009 boil-water order. In that episode, town residents and businesses were required to boil their drinkng water for almost two weeks, after samples revealed bacterial contamination.
The impact of an 83 percent increase in water rates will be felt by small businesses, large industrial users, the town government itself, and small households struggling to pay bills, officials said.
"This is not a wealthy community," Fernandes said. "This is a community of middle-class families who work hard. We have a high percentage of the population that is on fixed income.”
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Brian Murray, chairman of the Milford Board of Selectmen, told the DPU hearing officer that many families will find it hard to pay the increased bills. “The negative effect that this proposed increase will have on the residents and businesses of our community cannot be overstated," he said. "During this time of supposed economic recovery, good-paying jobs are still scarce.”
Murray described what will happen to the cost of water service for Milford residents:
- An average family of three paid about $265 this past year for water. Under the proposal, their rate would be $486 per year, an increase of $221.
- An average family of five now pays around $970 annually for water. Their water bill would increase to $1,744, a hike of $766.
Dozens of town residents shared their own stories about being on fixed incomes, or struggling to pay bills. They also described the service of the company, giving examples of low water pressure, and receiving frequent notices of contamination levels that exceed state and federal limits.
The Water Company filed its rate request proposal in October, seeking to generate additional revenue to cover the construction of the new water treatment plant. The facility is under construction on Dilla Street and is expected to be operational in spring 2013.
The size of the rate request took town officials by surprise, because initially, the Water Company told officials it would seek a rate hike of about 50 percent. Instead, the filing application sought 83 percent, across the board, for all customers.
Editor's Note: People who were not able to attend the public hearing can mail written comments to: Mark Marini, Secretary of the Department of Public Utilities, Department of Public Utilities, 1 South Station, Boston, MA 02110, Docket No. 1286.
For additional coverage of the Water Company request, including past stories, please click here.