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City residents may avoid water rate hike for a change

For the first time in five years, Buffalo property owners might be spared from having to pay more money to turn on their taps.

If trends continue, the city should be able to hold the line on water rates when a new budget takes effect this summer, a Water Board consultant said Wednesday.

Customers haven't had a reprieve from a rate increase since 2001, critics note. Rates have gone up every year since.

Metered customers have seen rate hikes totaling 64 percent over the past four years, while flat-rate customers saw their bills increase by 55 percent. The typical metered residence pays about $295 a year for water, while the average home on the flat rate pays about $400.

There's no need to increase rates this winter or spring, said Lisa Foti Milk, the water rate consultant. In 2002 and 2004, declining water use, lagging collections and other problems prompted the board to hike rates in the middle of the year.

But the outlook improved since then, Milk said. For one thing, collections are up $2.1 million over budget projections.

Water officials credit an aggressive effort by American Water Services, the system operator, to collect debts. Last fall's foreclosure auction also helped. For the first time, the city foreclosed on properties that had delinquent water bills.

Based on current trends, Milk said she's cautiously optimistic that a rate increase can be avoided July 1. She said "tough decisions" the board made to raise rates in past years have helped to stabilize finances.

But Milk and board Chairwoman Victoria J. Saxon stressed that a final decision on rates can't be made for several months. It's important to make sure that there are sufficient reserves to offset unexpected problems, Saxon said.

"All we would need is a wet summer when people wouldn't be using as much water, and we would face more trouble," Saxon said.The Sewer Authority met for the first time since David P. Comerford was appointed executive director last month. Comerford said one early goal involves making changes in the way the authority doles out millions of dollars in contracts.

City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo released an audit in late 2004 that found more than half of all contracts approved over a three-year period were not subjected to competitive bidding. Public entities can authorize what are known as sole-source contracts if they can demonstrate that the product or service is so specialized that it must be provided by a certain vendor.

"Some sole-source contracts are unavoidable, but we're going to have to keep a tighter rein on it," said Comerford.

Frank Belliotti, the city's chief auditor, said he's encouraged by Comerford's plan to revise bidding policies.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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