December 19, 2014
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Sewers: It’s all a matter of money

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.


Comments
16 comments on this item

Good article.....the solution is simple i.e. if people want sewers they pay for them. What is so difficult to understand?

Reality, There are two different issues. That would make sense if the rules had always been that way. But, many residents were told if you don't hook into the sewers you would be charged a connect capable fee. The city council changed the policy when a couple of residents complained they couldn't afford it. Plenty of other residents that did it can't afford it either. The city should have been consistent with its policy. That would have been fair to all involved. Personally I would have tied in either way. It isn't an issue for me. I think for residents that can show they have a system that is perfectly equal to sewers they should be able to keep their system, but they should also pay a connect capable fee.

The second issue is the construction of the sewers. All have to pay for the construction. If they run it down your street it only makes sense that all share the cost of construction. I don't have children now or ever have I had children in the schools. I don't use them but they are important to my city. Sometimes we pay for services that we don't use. For me that's schools and libraries. I only care that I get a good value from my money. I visited our central library once and was pleased to see a full parking lot and a lot of people taking advantage of the facility. I can't say the same for our schools, as the quality of education in a community is key to the stability of home values.

Since sewers are beneficial to the whole city, why not divide the cost among all homeowners? If they truly benefit everyone, why should people in Cowesett just pay for Cowesett sewers? Have the folks in Governor Francis pay for the Cowesett sewers also.

Dave, That would have been the correct way to do it. As it has been so mishandled the people that got there sewers installed I believe paid $50-$55. Now the people are paying over $80. To further support your point, whether or not you are connected to the sewers you receive the benefit of rain water maintenance.

Why should the property owners who already paid for the sewer construction projects in their neighborhood have to pay for additional projects in other neighborhoods?

If the cost of a swer construction project will be millions more because it is near the coast or because of other factors, those who live there should pay for the cost of construction. Or if sewer are not the answer they should pay to build whatever system is needed to properly dispose of their waste.

The issue here is that the same people who have mismangaed the Warwick Sewer Authority are still in charge. The entire state wide enableing legislation that created the WSA should be eliminated and the authoirty put back in the hands of the city council and the mayor just like the DPW and other city departments. At least then there would be some accountability.

Giving $30 million more in debt service to the WSA to continue sewer projects is only going to lead to more projects under assessed and massive increases in usage fees. That is not fair and one of the main reasons people do not want to hook up to the sewers and have no confidence in the existing over site of WSA operations.

Mr. Cushman, They should help out because in my scenario all Warwick taxpayers would have helped them cover the cost of the projects when they were in their neighborhoods. I don't think we should now go retroactively and charge them. As it is now, those that were either lucky or in neighborhoods that were connected politically got the work done first. And at a much lower cost. Lets have a community that pitches in and steps up for one another. Not one that says "screw that guy". Read my earlier post. I don't mind paying for services that I don't use as long as I feel the community gets a good value. Sewers and an improved environment are good for all of us. Just because your not connected doesn't mean your not seeing the benefit. Time to initiate a rainwater treatment tax to people that aren't currently paying a sewer bill but are enjoying the benefit of rainwater treatment. That and a connect capable fee should help spread the burden more fairly across all Warwick taxpayers. I hope this shed some light on the subject for you.

The people rule and the majority don't want to pay for additional sewer projects. The WSA is horribly run and we won't bail them out.

Reality, If there is a popular uprising to stop sewer construction that's alright. I personally would like to see responsible stewardship of our environment. However when it rains, some of that rainwater is treated. It costs money to pay for that treatment and we should all pay for it. Right now its a burden on the shoulders of the homes tied to the sewers. If people don't all share the burden of our infrastucture then I would like a refund for all the money I have paid for schools and the library. Its time for people to stop being selfish and to do the right thing.

Patientman, very well put. I also pay for services I dont or ever use, why is this any different. I take a lot of the comments with a grain of salt If you notice its all the same 4 or 5 people that keep making a big deal of this.

Patientman has a good point regarding newly installed septic systems. Why compel someone to tie in who as already been burdened with the cost of a new, ISDS approved system? You are going to whack them with an assessment regardless, why compound the problem with hitting them for a tie in that is not needed? As plats tie in, those that paid for a new system will have a system that will be more effective as the cesspools will no longer be competing for abutting leech fields.

Secondly, I still have not heard ANYTHING from council members, the Mayor, our State House delegation, or the 4 members of our Washington brigade regarding monies, be it direct aid, grant programs, whatever, to ease the cost burden to residents...NOTHING! What are you people doing?? $5T dollars spent in the last 4+ years and $20-50M couldn't be found for a program such as this? Until proven otherwise, you are all useless! Reed and Langevin have been there the longest and you've done NOTHING about securing funds...You guys can't come up with $20-50M to fund a bond program such as a 50/50 program to get a health issue program like this done....YOU ALL SHOULD BE FIRED.

@Patientman - You are not totally correct in your statement that "all Warwick taxpayers would have helped them cover the cost of the projects when they were in their neighborhoods".

I believe the orginal $130 million in borrowing that was authorized when the WSA was created were general obligations bonds on the first sewer projects. I beleive the interest payment on these bonds I believe was paid by taxpayers thoughout the city. So in that respect a small portion of the first project costs was shared by all citizens.

The subsequent project borrowing was authorized through revenue bonds which means that only the people who had sewers installed bore the cost of the projects. The issue of fairness is what happened when the WSA projects when under asssessed resulting in tens of millions of dollars in debt. What happen is that the WSA passed that debt onto every household that was connected to the system in the form of higher usage rates.

Now if you really want to be fair to everyone those households that participated in projects where the overall constuction cost was not fully paid because of the incompentence of the WSA in not assessing the cost correctly, then all the property owers for each of those projects should have been requiired to pay an additional assessment to make the overall construction cost of the project.

I asked why the WSA didn't do that and the answer was that it wasn't possible. Why? Instead the WSA has been jacking up the usage fees to a point that now I believe over 25 percent of the fee is paying for debt service.

So the bottom line is, as REALITY has stated, those that want sewers in their neighborhood should pay 100% of the cost of construction and the WSA as it currently operates, should be disbanded and a new organization structure created that is accountable for its decisions.

If the WSA was a private company, the CEO and board would have been fired years ago and the operation would be in bankrupcy court.

@ Bob Cushman, Are you saying that the first sewers installed were at no cost to the residents that received the sewer access? Then clearly they should be helping to pay off a fair proportion of the rest of the sewers. How can anybody think its fair that some people didn't pay a several thousand dollar bill, but everyone else did? FUBAR

Patientman question: "Are you saying that the first sewers installed were at no cost to the residents that received the sewer access?" No I didn't say that. Those residents who were part of the first sewer projects from the orginal $130 million bond were assessed a construction cost and they paid the principal cost on those projects. Some of the interest on those bonds may have been paid by all Warwick citizens since the bonds were general obligation. .

Years later additional borrowing was authorized using revenue bonds. This means that the cost of the swer projects should have been paid 100% by the property owners receiving the sewers. That didn't happen. The WSA being incompentence or for politicial reasons failed to increase the asseessment fee for those projects. As a result about $10 million in project costs were not paid by the property owners who received the sewers.

The WSA passed that cost onto every property owner connected to the system. Anyone else in the city that is not connected to the sewers is not paying this cost.

My disagreement with you is that I do not agree that everyone in the city should pay to fund these projects.

For example if a new development decides that all the electrical lines are going to be buried under ground at a substantial higher cost then putting the lines on poles as is currently in older Warwick neighborhoods, should all the other electrical users in the city have to pay for this additional cost? No!

The same holds for the cost of new sewer projects. If property owners near the water want sewers and it cost $20,000 to $30,000 per property they should pay 100% the cost of sewer construction.

The question is should the WSA even be proposing these projects? Is there a less expansive alternative? Is the WSA as in the past going to under assess the project and thus pass the cost on to every existing customer?

@Bob Cushman, You can't compare burying electrical wires with sewers. They simply aren't the same. The entire community and state benefit from having clean water in the bay. Buried power lines make for a nicer neighborhood but there is no value extended beyond that neighborhood. Not wanting all residents to support our sewers is the same as saying only those with children in schools should pay for schools. Schools and sewers both add to the value of the community. We all benefit and all of the projects should have been spread equally across all taxpayers from the beginning.

Is it your point that the reason more recent sewer projects have costs a lot more because they were more coastal? When the buttonwoods project was being formed the reasons given for higher costs were inflation, increased construction costs (not because it was coastal) higher steel and oil prices. I don't remember any argument that coastal location was a cost driver. It could have been but it wasn't highlighted. BTW, what is the $20,000-$30,000 construction cost estimate? At $81/foot a house would have to have 246 feet of frontage to costs $20,000. I think I had 80 feetish and it cost me about $7,000. It was a while ago, but it was definitely under $10,000.

I think it was closer to 60 feet of frontage. Oops

I don't disagree about the entire communtiy benefiting from a clean bay. My point is the WSA has been so poorly managed that a might be cheaper to build alternative waste containment systems instead of expanding the WSA.

Comparing sewers to schools is nonsense because the environmental aspect of installing sewers have long been discarded by the WSA. Look at the history of how they decided to start one project over another. The decision was politically not environmentally based. Now the WSA is scrambling to generate as much revenue as possible through new projects because they are millions of dollars in debt. They need more customers.

Compare a bill from 7 years ago to today. The sewer user fees have more then doubled.

According to a knowledgable source, for some of the recently proposed sewer projects, (some near the coast) if you take the total cost of construction and divide it by the number of property owners within the project, each owner would be assessed bwtween $20 - $30,000. Do you really think the WSA will ever propose that expense on homeowners? The existing $81 per foot will not cover the cost of construction on any project.

It is my fear and that of many others that these projects will once again be underassess and the WSA will jack up the user fees to pay for the debt.

If the cost of sewers was reasonable, would anyone be complaining or for that matter refuse to connect into the system?

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