It comes down to money.
How much will it cost to extend sewers and, just as important, who is going to pay for them?
The City Council Commission reviewing plans to bring sewers to sections of the city that are faced with failing septic systems or cesspools is digging for the answers.
Commission chairman Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur summed it up at Friday’s meeting.
“One of the most significant issues is how much is this going to cost. We need to get to this,” he said.
Ladouceur wants that answer by the time the commission conducts a series of community meetings to outline plans to bring sewers to the O’Donnell Hill section of Ward 8; extend Governor Francis Farms sewers in Ward 1 and the Bayside project that would mean sewers for the neighborhoods of Riverview and Highland Beach. Collectively, the projects, which have already been designed and could start within the year, are estimated to cost $23 million.
Whatever they cost, a group of residents that have been pushing for sewer authority reforms wants to ensure those residents who get the sewers end up paying for them. The group, that garnered more than 700 signatures on petitions calling for an audit of the authority, has started a second drive calling for the authority to require all expenses relating to the extension of sewers be borne by those property owners getting them.
Sewer assessments are designed to cover those expenses so that those who tie into the service share the cost of construction. However, because assessments weren’t adjusted to reflect actual costs, the authority has had to boost user fees to carry the debt. This places a greater and greater burden on system users and serves to discourage people from tying into the sewers.
“I’m not against sewers,” Roger Durand, a member of the group, said Friday in an interview. He said in a matter of a few hours he collected the signatures of 200 Ward 3 residents calling on the authority not to finance added sewers with user fees.
“Don’t pass it on to us,” he said.
But it’s not that simple.
The Warwick Sewer Authority is also faced with Department of Environmental Management (DEM) mandates to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant at an estimated cost of $16 million. Further, to avert a recurrence of the 2010 flooding that shut down the plant and cost about $11 million in repairs, the authority will need to spend another $5 million in levee work and pumps.
The commission is digging deep into operational and construction costs in an effort to see where the authority could trim expenses. In a meeting last week, paving was identified as a major expense to new construction and it was suggested that, instead of running sewer lines down roads, they be installed under sidewalks.
Authority director Janine Burke said Friday that paving accounts for 23 percent of the typical sewer construction project, with 60 percent going for materials.
Ladouceur wanted to know how much was paid for police details and that might be an area to cut corners. Burke put details at 1 percent and suggested there might be savings when it came to inspections.
Commission member Michelle Komar questioned whether the authority had explored partnering with the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) on financing and other aspects of sewer construction. That idea struck a chord with commission member Senator William Walaska. He went a step further.
“Maybe there’s some sort of consolidation,” he ventured. Then he added, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, “You’re not going to see any revenue from them [NBC], I can tell you that.”
Ladouceur thought it was worth exploring nonetheless and asked if an NBC representative could attend the next meeting.
There were nods of agreement that the commission should also invite representatives from other utilities, including National Grid, the water division and Verizon to see measures taken to coordinate utility projects and share in costs.
“Let’s do it one time and all share in the cost on a pro-rata basis,” he said.
But when all the costs are added up, sewers may not be the most cost effective answer.
The commission is also looking at alternatives to sewers.
George Loomis, director of the New England Onsite Wastewater Treatment Training Program based at URI, explained how septic systems are designed to function.
“It’s not unlike what you have at a sewer treatment plant but on a reduced level,” he said.
He said systems could be designed to work on a small footprint at high levels. He showed photographs of houses within 100 feet of the shoreline with advanced systems capable of removing the same level of nitrogen as treatment plants. Loomis put the cost of a conventional septic system on a sufficiently sized site at $10,000 to $15,000. An advanced system on the same site would be $16,000 to $25,000. On a constricted site, Loomis placed the cost of a conventional system at $20,000 to $40,000 and an advanced system at $25,000 to $35,000.
Ladouceur hopes to provide cost comparatives at the public meetings.
By this fall, Ladouceur intends for the commission to have proposed recommendations in the authority’s enabling legislation. A major change being considered is a revision to assessments, which are now based on linear footage [the longer the lot line, the higher the cost] to a unit cost. Ladouceur would like to have the legislation pre-filed in the hope that the General Assembly would act on the bill soon after the first of the year.
That’s not all Durand and that group would like to see.
Durand links the high cost of sewer usage to debt and “mismanagement” and he thinks it’s time to do away with the authority.
“It’s time for the City Council to take control,” he said.
Both the authority and the mayor concur with the group’s earlier petition for an audit but both say there isn’t the money to do it.
Again, it’s a matter of money.