It’s time for a decision.
After a dozen meetings and hours of testimony, the council sewer review commission is faced with recommending the city move forward with $57 million of sewer upgrades and expansion, or bringing an end to extending the system and leaving homeowners no choice but to replace aging cesspools with costly septic systems if they can.
Either way is going to be expensive.
And seemingly the Warwick Sewer Authority (WSA) has virtually no choice but to commit to $18 million in wastewater treatment plant upgrades and $5 million to raise levees at its facility on the banks of the Pawtuxet River. It faces a May 2016 deadline for the work to be completed. The cost of those improvements mandated by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to meet requirements in the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous discharges will be borne by all ratepayers. The exception could be the levee work should the authority win a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur, who chairs the review panel, aims to have a recommendation to the council by their meeting Nov. 13.
Last Wednesday night, as the sixth game of the World Series was under way at Fenway, more than 300 people filled Council Chambers. In a presentation by the authority and the commission, they heard that the existing linear foot method of assessments is unfair and should be changed and that past practices were lacking.
“You shouldn’t be treated any different than your neighbor. Inequity has to be dealt with,” said WSA board member Peter Ginaitt. The commission proposes a change in the authority’s enabling legislation for unit assessments so that the cost of a project extension would be equally shared by all property owners.
Authority director Janine Burke said that prior assessment rates were insufficient to pay for the cost of extensions.
“Balanced budgets seem pretty basic but that wasn’t done,” she said.
Then, after 90 minutes of PowerPoint presentations, came the sticker shock.
Based on the projected cost of four projects, which are on the drawing boards, that per-unit assessment could range from $15,000 to $30,000.
Calculated over a 20-year payout, Burke said those assessment costs could range from $133.64 to $225.62 in monthly payments.
“Our job is to get them down as low as possible,” she said.
Even so, those were amounts Governor Francis Farms resident Laura Pisaturo said many homeowners can’t afford.
“Frankly, $40 a month is too much for many people, especially in Rhode Island,” she said. “I think the critical issue is cost and $15,000 to $30,000 isn’t an equitable assessment.”
Carol Moore backed her words.
“I still want them,” she said of sewers, “but I can’t afford them.”
She questioned if she and her neighbors could replace cesspools with septic systems. Would that work? As described, septic systems can be as costly, and there’s no guarantee for how long they will work. Further, as Ginaitt explained, ground conditions in some areas lend themselves to septic systems where only the next block over they don’t. His point: To be effective, entire neighborhoods must be treated as projects.
“You can’t mix and match,” he said.
For some, like John Knight of Shore Road, sewers couldn’t come fast enough. Knight bought his house three years ago but he hasn’t been able to move in because of its failed septic system. His question was, if he proceeds with a new septic system and the sewers are later installed, would he be faced with paying the assessment? The WSA has proposed forgiving assessment payments for up to 20 years in such instances, which would also require enabling legislation. Interest on the payments would also be exempted.
The proposed $34 million in sewer extensions breaks down into four major projects.
George Burke of O’Donnell Hill in Ward 8 said he polled the neighborhood and “they don’t want sewers. The whole neighborhood is up in arms about it,” he said.
Burke said he’ll take his chances with a septic system.
“The bottom line is, I don’t want to be a Warwick sewer customer,” he said.
Not all comments were either in favor or against extending sewers. Governor Francis Farms resident Susan Shapiro questioned whether WSA could lower the assessment interest rate to make the program more affordable.
“We’re looking at that,” said Ladouceur. “6.3 percent [interest rate] is not acceptable.”
The deadline for property owners to eliminate cesspools within 200 feet of the coast was also raised. Angelo Liberti of the DEM, who serves on the committee, said the deadline would be extended once funding for extension of sewers into that neighborhood is secured. Property owners would have six months in which to connect to the sewers once they are operational.
Ladouceur said he received positive feedback following the meeting. He said people who contacted him found it informative and were impressed by the “transparency” of authority operations. Ladouceur said he is in awe of the review commission that, he estimates, has already put in 60 to 70 hours.
“It has taken on a life of its own. They are dedicated to making this work,” he said.
He said he came out of the hearing with 18 “bullet points,” or suggestions.
So, what will the commission recommend the council do?
Ladouceur couldn’t speak for the group, but from his perspective, “the $33 million only makes sense. We’ve got to get in there and get it done. It’s not going to go away and it’s not going to get any smaller [less expensive].”
Ladouceur summed it up during the hearing.
“The real challenge is to get the cost down.”
WITH DETAILS: Michele Komar, the public representive to the commission speaks at last Wednesday’s meeting. Beside her is Rep. Frank Ferri, also a member of the panel. At right are some of the more than 300 who turned out to hear about sewer projects. (Warwick Beacon photos)