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Buffalo homeowners will pay an extra $72 a year in sewer fees on average, but their water bills might not go up as much as anticipated.

Two city boards met Wednesday to consider controversial rate increases. The Sewer Authority unanimously approved a preliminary budget that will raise sewer bills by 22.7 percent starting July 1.

But the Water Board delayed a planned vote on a rate hike after some Common Council members and Masiello administration officials disclosed that they might have a way to keep the increase to 5 percent. Last month, some water officials said a 10 percent increase would likely be needed to offset higher costs, a shrinking customer base and declining water usage.

A rate consultant has since recommended a 7.5 percent increase.

But a plan is afoot to keep the increase at 5 percent or less by allowing the water system to pay a smaller subsidy to the city's general fund. In turn, city officials committed to finding new places to cut spending to prevent the fiscal maneuver from causing other types of taxes to increase.

The owner of the Wash Room, a South Buffalo Laundromat, attended both meetings. Simon F. Manka said increases in water and sewer rates will hurt people who can least afford it. "I'm going to have to pass it on to my customers, and (many) are lower-middle income people and poor people who don't have washers and dryers," said Manka.

He added that higher water and sewer bills are making it tough for business owners who are already facing rising utility costs, garbage user fees and other expenses.

Sewer Authority General Manager Anthony A. Hazzan said soaring utility costs are one of the culprits causing the rate increase. The authority has seen its utility bills increase by about $2 million over the past year, he said. Higher borrowing costs for system upgrades that are mandated by the state and federal governments are also a major factor, he said.

The authority board unanimously approved the $53.1 million preliminary operating budget. While one last vote must be taken next month, the action is viewed as a formality.

The Water Board must finalize a rate increase by June, but officials hope to take a vote next month. Board Chairwomman Victoria J. Saxon said she might still propose a 10 percent increase, saying it would help stabilize finances in a water system that currently has a $2.5 million deficit.

But Council Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola and Council Finance Committee Chairman Brian C. Davis implored the Water Board to consider the smaller increase. The lawmakers voiced confidence that they could line up enough Council support to allow the water system to keep about $234,000 of a $4.9 million payment that it is required to make to the city next fiscal year.


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