The council commission that has been meeting as frequently as twice a week for the last three months is expected to recommend to the council tomorrow night that it grant the Warwick Sewer Authority the power to borrow $56 million in revenue bonds.
“It was a unanimous decision,” Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said of the commission’s vote on two separate issues Thursday. Of the total, $23 million would be used for required upgrades of the wastewater treatment plant and elevating the Pawtuxet River levee that couldn’t hold back floodwaters in 2010. That flood resulted in about $13 million in damages to the treatment plant.
The remaining $33 million, which promises to be especially controversial, would be used for six major sewer extension projects.
Approval of the funding, Ladouceur pointed out in an interview Friday, “doesn’t obligate them [the WSA] to go ahead with the projects.”
Further, he pointed out that, should the council approve the bonding, it would be a considerable period, maybe not until late 2014 that construction would begin.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” he said.
Some residents are questioning whether it should happen at all.
Roger Durand, who has attended a majority of commission meetings, and whose group continues to circulate petitions calling on the authority not to use operating revenues to pay for sewer extensions. The group is calling on the authority to fund future extensions from assessments of those getting the sewers.
“We haven’t been told where it [the money] is going to be coming from,” he said Friday. “The big question is, who is going to be paying for this?”
Projections made by the commission put assessments between $15,000 and $30,000. Currently, assessments are based on linear footage and calculated by multiplying that by how many feet of sewer pipe run along the frontage of a property. It can be paid over 20 years.
The commission has been consistent in advocating a change in the enabling legislation that would equally share the cost of new sewer extensions between all those who would get them.
The question Ladouceur was not prepared to answer was whether the commission would recommend dividing the cost of all six projects by the number of potential new customers or base assessments on a project-by-project basis. He also didn’t have a per-unit assessment rate.
Regardless, Ladouceur said the commission must continue to look to reduce assessments. This includes coordinating projects with other utility work; incentives for contractors to complete projects on time and on budget; and consolidating projects for economy of scale. Delaying the work, he argues, only “kicks the can down the road” and will result in higher costs.
There’s more to it than that.
By statute, when a property with a cesspool is sold, the owner must connect to the sewer or put in an approved septic system. Furthermore, cesspools within 200 feet of the coast face a December 2014 deadline to close. The Department of Environmental Management is prepared to extend the deadline, provided the municipality can show it has a plan to provide sewers and that the funding is in place.
“We have to have the courage to take this thing on now,” said Ladouceur. “They have been sitting there and their life is in limbo because government hasn’t acted and they wonder if they’re going to get sewers.”
Ladouceur would like to take on all six projects at once.
Yet, that would not provide sewers to all parts of the city; some sections, such as Potowomut, may never get sewers.
“If we can’t do sewers, we have got to come up with a program for these folks,” he said.
Septic systems can cost $25,000 and more.
The resolutions the council will consider tomorrow, should they be approved, would be followed by a rate study.
At Ladouceur’s request, the $33 million revenue bond for the six projects – three bayside/Longmeadow/Highland Beach and Riverview projects; Governor Francis Farms Phase III; O’Donnell/East Natick; and Northeast Gorton Pond – is limited to those projects and can’t be used for something else.
Ladouceur sees the bond issues as a step in the process. He hopes the commission will soon have recommendations for changes to the enabling legislation dealing with assessments, deferments, governance, programs for non-sewered areas, maintenance and construction.
He would like the authority to report to the council and for the mayor and council to have more oversight.
Durand sees enabling legislation as the critical issue, although he will raise questions about costs and how they would impact rates and assessments tomorrow night.
After tomorrow, debate will continue before the council and quite possibly at the State House. The debate is far from over.