Water, sewer costs in focus during budget hearing in Oneida

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ONEIDA — Talks on the Water Department, the sewer system, and the new Codes Department were discussed by Oneida officials during a budget meeting on Tuesday.

Water Superintendent Art Smolinski presented his department’s budget for 2022. Smolinski said as it stands, 2021 is looking at a predicted 984 million gallons of water sold — an increase of 30 million gallons from 2020.

“I don’t see any big adjustments, but the only thing I’m concerned about is that Green Empire Farms has its recycled water system running, so their consumption may drop off somewhat,” he said. “In 2020, they did use 74 million gallons.”

The city has been selling more water than it has in previous years, Smolinski added. Comptroller Lee Ann Wells said that the water fund is sound and stable after the meeting.

“With some of the big projects, like the Glenmore Dam Rehabilitation Project, can be funded via fund balance,” Wells said. “So you wouldn’t have a debt service payment, an issuance cost, or anything else. And that’s very beneficial for the water rate.”

One significant change that is coming to the city of Oneida’s Water Department is the loss of Verona as a customer. In a move approved in 2020 by the Rome Common Council and Verona Town Board, Verona will buy water from Rome.

Verona’s water demands are about 900,000 gallons per day, and with expected expansions in the future, there was a need for water that Oneida couldn’t meet.

“Verona will be the city of Rome’s customer,” Smolinski said. “They represented 15.9% of the sales. We had a limited water supply, and they foresee a demand higher than what we can provide.”

“That seems like a big loss,” Ward 1 Councilor Carrie Earl said.

“But it will free water to other customers that want to expand their system,” Smolinski said. “The village of Vernon has customers they want to add on, but they’re getting resistance from the DEC.”

On capital projects, the Water Department is working on getting a second clearwell installed on the Glenmore Dam. The clearwell is where the final purification takes place, where chlorine is added. According to the water superintendent, adding a second clearwell would help water quality in the long run.

“Right now, we only have one clearwell, so it makes things difficult if we want to clear it or make repairs,” Smolinski said. “Having a second would allow for redundancy, letting us take one offline for cleaning and repair.”

“Right now, we have certain situations where we have to increase the dose of chlorine because we don’t have the storage,” Smolinski said. “If we had more storage, we could keep the dose lower, and that improves the taste of the water. It also lowers the cost of chemicals and lowers corrosion.”

Sewer Department

The Oneida sewer hasn’t seen a rate increase in decades until this last year at the urging of then-City Engineer Erich Schuler. While the costs of employee salaries had gone up, the price of chemicals increased, and power costs kept going up, the rate had stayed the same.

The sewer rate had a 20% increase in 2020, and it’s proposed to get another increase.

At the time, Schuler said the increases would pay for the sewer system’s infrastructure upgrades. Wells said at the meeting the increases are necessary to maintain a health sewer fund.

“It’s not the same situation with the water fund, where it’s got that surplus,” Ward 6 Councilor and Deputy Mayor Tom Simchik said. “And we’ve gone for around 20 years without a rate adjustment, and now it’s all hitting at once.”

And with the costs of chemicals and materials going up with inflation, the need for additional funds is apparent.

“We don’t really have a choice,” Ward 5 Councilor Brandee DuBois said.

Ward 4 Councilor Michelle Ironside Kinville said she’d heard complaints from people in her district about sewer rate increases. “And for some people, $30 to $40 is a lot.”

“For those of us in the city on water and sewer, my wife and I pay around $150 a quarter for water and sewer together,” Ward 3 Councilor Jim Coulthart said.

“After the meeting, Wells said if a 20% increase were to be established by the city council, a home with a $75 quarterly bill would see around a $15 increase. This rate would change based on the bill, with lower rates seeing a lower increase. A decision on the rate still needs to be made by the council.

Codes Department

Codes Enforcement Director Bob Burnett also presented his budget to the city council.

The Codes Department has found a way to bring money into the city by selling houses foreclosed by the city due to taxes. The city council has approved the sale of more than eight properties with the proceeds going back into the city’s general fund.

In addition to the director, the Codes Department has a clerk, but Burnett argues that the duties prescribed should be considered an administrative assistant. “I’d encourage making this position an administrative assistant because the Codes Department absorbed the duties of property management from the Assessor’s Office,” Burnett said. “Selling homes is very time-consuming. So is scheduling, marketing, making phone calls, and assisting with rehab agreements.”

Burnett said the position has several other time-consuming tasks, including court system paperwork when necessary. “And we need to invest to retain our employees, especially during these economic times of inflation,” Burnett said.

The city council will meet again on Monday, Nov. 15, at
6 p.m. in the Common Council Chambers to discuss the Police Department budget.

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