© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - The Board of Selectmen last week agreed Stoneham's Water & Sewer Review Board should play a formal role in budget deliberations.

During a meeting in Town Hall on Monday night, Water and Sewer Review Board Chairman Scott LeBeau told the elected officials that the advisory panel is traditionally consulted far too late in the budgetary process to recommend any meaningful changes to proposed rates.

He also lamented that this October, board members were surprised to learn that Town Meeting would be voting upon several capital items related to Stoneham's water and sewer infrastructure.

"We're almost involved at the eleventh hour [in the discussion about the water and sewer department budget and how that spending will impact rates]," said LeBeau. "We're handed the information and all the meat and potatoes of the budget are already done. There's really no flexibility for input on the budget at that point."

According to several selectmen, the advisory board deserved to be involved earlier in all aspects of the budgetary process. The elected officials also lamented the fact that LeBeau and his colleagues were never consulted about planned capital expenditures.

Selectmen Chair Shelly MacNeill, who has resurrected Tri-Board budget reviews with the Finance Board and School Committee, promised to schedule a similar forum for the Water and Sewer Review Board's input.

"When would you think it makes sense for you to [meet with us]?" asked the chairwoman.

Though LeBeau appeared satisfied with that response, Selectmen Raymie Parker and Caroline Colarusso, noting ongoing communications problems in town, advocated for sponsoring a Town Meeting initiative that mandates the sharing of budgetary information with the Water and Sewer Review Board.

According to MacNeill, though she will make every effort to ensure relevant documentation makes it to the group, codifying that requirement will ensure the lines of communication stay open.

"I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea that it's enshrined in a bylaw. Adding in a statement that you need to be notified is a [good] policy," she said. "It's not about us, it's about the process [continuing for future boards too]."

"I think you'll find agreement here with this board supporting a bylaw change. You're board has a laser focus [on water and sewer system trends], so you should be intricately involved with warrant articles and decisions on rates," agreed Colarusso.

Last year, members of the Water & Sewer Board reluctantly sanctioned a big hike in water and sewer rates in order to cover a $200,000 deficit in enterprise accounts.

At the time, LeBeau and his colleagues, frustrated to learn so late about the financial issue, asked a series of questions about major changes in departmental accounting practices.

Specifically, Town Accountant David Castellarin projects water rates based upon a "collected-consumption model", which differs significantly from a total consumption forecast utilized in the past.

Under a collected consumption approach, local officials base the departmental operating budget off of actual annual payments for the services, rather than total billing amounts sent to customers.

Some Water and Sewer Review Board members, pointing out Stoneham has a decades long history of calculating departmental budgets based on projected total annual consumption, scoffed at that accounting change and questioned whether other factors were playing into the shortfall.

The Water and Sewer Review Board has historically met with DPW Director Robert Grover to discuss operating costs in the departments, which are funded directly by residents’ bills. The five-member committee then recommends to the town administrator a rate structure for the ensuing year.

The town administrator retains the sole authority to set water and sewer rates, and in the past, some of Town Hall's CEOs have imposed a different fee schedule than the one voted upon by the advisory group.

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