After scores of hearings since last summer, the Council Sewer Review Commission is looking to put the ball back in the court of the Warwick Sewer Authority, yet make them answerable to the council and the mayor.
On Monday, commission chairman Ed Ladouceur circulated a draft of enabling legislation that will need General Assembly approval to be enacted. The legislation is the second major product of the commission that was created following Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci’s call for a revenue bond so that the sewer system could be expanded. Earlier this year, the council approved $56 million in revenue bonds, of which $33 million is to be used to bring sewers to six neighborhoods, with the balance going to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant to meet demands for the increased removal of nitrogen and phosphorus and to raise the Pawtuxet River levee. Work on the plant has been partially funded and is ready to start. Sewer extension construction wouldn’t start until next year.
From the start, the commission has also looked at authority practices and governance with the aim of equitably distributing cost and providing accountability. One of the first issues the commission identified was the existing linear foot assessment. The per-foot rate is applied to the number of feet of pipe alongside a property.
The inequity of the system is no more apparent than with identical homes where one property owner is paying twice and even more than the neighbor. Initially, the commission favored equally dividing the cost of a project between all those who would have access to the sewers. Estimates put that cost at about $22,000 per household.
However, after hearing testimony from the owners of small lots that this would be unfair to them, Ladouceur talked of a hybrid between linear footage and unit cost.
But that’s not what the commission has come up with. Rather, the proposed enabling legislation calls on the sewer authority to amend its rules and regulations within the next year. Those regulations would set a system for assessment and presumably a dollar amount based on project bids.
“It’s not our job to micro-manage,” said Ladouceur. “It has to have the oversight from the council and the mayor.”
Under the plan, the council and the mayor would have to sign off on the rules and regulations. In addition, the Sewer Authority would be called on to make quarterly reports to the council.
Also, Ladouceur sees the touchy issue of a connect-capable fee charged to those with access to sewers, but choosing not to, as coming under rules and regulations. The authority has pressed for a fee on the premise that the sewers are a resource and that all capable of using them should share in their cost.
Although Ladouceur argues for sewer expansion to broaden the base of 21,000 users and thus share in the cost of operations, he’s not sold on a connect-capable fee.
“I’m not warm and fuzzy with connect-capable fees,” he said.
Ladouceur is also looking for greater focus on controlling costs, whether it is streamlining operations or tightening up construction bids and reducing cost overruns. He further wants to reduce costs by lowering the interest rate on assessment payments. An extension of payments from 20 to 30 years is also being seen as a means of easing the burden on the homeowner.
“We know there are hardship cases out there,” he said. Programs to assist people are on his agenda.
Ladouceur knows there will be opposition. He heard it at numerous commission meetings.
“These naysayers are not telling the whole story,” he said of those who argue septic systems can deal with the problem.
His answer is that septic systems can be as costly and need replacement in 25 years if homeowners are lucky. Sewers are there for good.
“I’m not convinced there’s any perfect way. But I believe this problem has to be addressed today in the fairest way possible,” he said.
Ladouceur hopes to have the council approve the enabling legislation on Monday.