The public will get the opportunity to review the Warwick Sewer Authority wastewater facilities plan at a hearing next Wednesday, not that their comments are likely to make any difference in a scheduled rate hike in July and additional increases that, on average, will have residential customers paying an additional $17 by 2016. Commercial users will average an additional $90.
WSA executive director Janine Burke hopes to lessen the sting if she can. Burke said that authority revenues might be slightly more than projected.
“If the numbers are good we may be able to tweak them [rate increases] down,” she said yesterday.
The facilities plan is a step toward meeting the authority’s agreement with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to upgrade treatment facilities to further reduce pollutants released into the Pawtuxet River. According to a consent agreement signed in 2008, the authority has no option but to meet new discharge levels for phosphorus and nitrogen of 0.1 mg/l and 8.0 mg/l, respectively. The cost of these improvements, plus $7 million to upgrade the plant to meet a 500-year storm level, is estimated at $21 million. Burke said the authority must start construction on the improvements by August 2013.
“We signed the consent agreement; we have to do this,” Burke said.
The cost of reducing pollutants, that some consider a minuscule gain for a mammoth expense, is projected to bump authority annual debt expense by $1 million annually.
Burke said the April 4 meeting at the authority offices would start at 5 p.m. with an open house where people will be able to review plans and ask questions on an informal basis. The hearing beginning an hour later will be recorded. Authority staff, engineers and consultants will be in attendance to answer questions. DEM representatives have also been invited to attend.
“The more questions we can address right then and there the better,” Burke said.
Ratepayers would be offered some relief if those capable of connecting to sewers actually took advantage of the system, thereby increasing operating revenues.
In gaining DEM approvals to extend the sewer system, the authority has signed agreements requiring property owners to tie into the system. However, the City Council has been reluctant to endorsing connect capable fees as an incentive to connect or, at the very least, enhance authority revenues. Also, following contentious meetings over the assessment and operating costs for Governor Francis Farms sewers, Rep. Joseph McNamara and Senator Michael McCaffrey introduced legislation exempting property owners from mandatory connections in some situations.
Burke said consultants based budget estimates on 600 new connections annually. Burke said that is being dropped to 500 as 403 new connections were made last year.
“The number of [new] connections are pathetic for the last couple of years,” she said.
She said the rate of connection in Governor Francis Farms is 44 percent, which she considers good, seeing that the sewers were completed last July.
As for improvements to avert future flooding, as happened in March 2010 when the plant was inundated by more than three feet of river water, Burke said the authority is looking at a combination of raising levees, installing a PV flood wall and upgrading its storm water pumping system.
She said the current levee level is 28.5 feet and that they would need to be raised by six feet to deal with a 500-year flood.
The facilities plan does not address sewers for Potowomut. Burke favors a wastewater management area for Potowomut that would make low cost funding available to property owners installing improved septic systems. The designation also carries mandatory system inspections and tests.
According to figures released earlier this year, the authority projects a series of rate increases, with the biggest hit for residential customers coming in 2014. The residential consumer rate, which is now $38.81, would climb to $45.95 per 1,000 cubic feet of water used. The set residential customer charge would climb from $25.75 to $30.49 by 2014. After 2014, both the usage and set residential rates would decline slightly. Commercial rates, which are tied to the size of water meters, as well as water usage, would continue to increase through 2016.