Jefferson Twp. residents will soon have the highest sewer fees in Lackawanna County.

Starting next month, the sewer authority — strapped with at least $16.6 million in debt — is increasing the monthly fee for residents connected to the township’s sewer system from $75 to $95. The new fee equates to $1,140 annually, up $240 per year from $900.

The next-highest fees in the county are $88 per month for Scott Twp. residents and $80 per month for Roaring Brook Twp. residents connected to their municipal sewer operations.

Knowing many township residents already struggle to pay their bills, some members of the sewer authority told The Times-Tribune it was a painful decision.

But even with the rate hike and prior cost-cutting efforts dating back to summer 2013, initial projections indicated the operation could run a $40,000-plus deficit for 2015.

Members expected to make up the difference by trimming more costs and generating more money, in part from charging people who were already connected to the system but were not yet getting bills, plus perhaps new development or acquiring more grants.

“I feel horrible. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but we can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” said authority member John Giguere, who recommended the new rate. “We need to charge enough so we can afford to start paying debt service (after deferring payments for about a year and a half). We tried to cut expenses as much as we could.”

The new rate is still less than the monthly $104 to $107 fee that financial consultant Mike Gallagher recommended after reviewing the operation’s finances last year — before the authority instead hiked the monthly rate from $60 to $75.

Increasing rates was also necessary for the sewer authority’s efforts to negotiate lower interest rates with lenders, said authority Chairman Bill Nicholais.

Other ways the authority has tried to close to gap since last year include replacing a full-time secretary with a part-time secretary, getting grant money to replace aging pumps with more energy-efficient versions and hiring a collections agency to go after delinquent payments.

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