With passage of enabling legislation that will allow the Warwick Sewer Authority to revise the current linear foot process of assessment, lower interest costs and offer a program for hardship cases, it would appear Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur has accomplished what he set out to do when he first ran for election in 2012.
Ladouceur is geared up to take on a new challenge in his campaign to bring “fairness and equity” to Warwick taxpayers. And you guessed it – it has to do with what sewer customers are paying.
Ladouceur asks why should property owners, who are paying for sewers with their assessment, bear the cost of repaving neighborhood streets when those are city streets are open to everyone?
His glaring example of inequity is in Ward 5 and the neighborhoods of Riverview and Highland Beach.
“They were promised since they bought their properties some 20 years ago that they were going to get sewers,” Ladouceur said. And since they were being told they would get sewers, the city didn’t repave the roads.
“So roads didn’t get paved either,” Ladouceur said, “and now they’re going to make the people who are getting the sewers pay for the roads. That’s a complete injustice. Maybe since they paid for the roads they should be the only ones to use the roads. Well, of course, that doesn’t work either.”
So, what would the councilman do?
He doesn’t have an answer…yet.
“That’s the next challenge,” he said in an interview Tuesday, “is fairness and equity for the cost of doing those roads. Everyone should share in the cost of doing those roads.”
It was the longtime promise to bring sewers to Ward 5 neighborhoods and the inequity of assessments that put Ladouceur on the path of creating the Warwick Sewer Review Commission three years ago. A lot has happened since then, and Ladouceur credits the commission – which held countless hearings and devoted hundreds of hours to the task – with bringing attention to the issue of sewers, educating the public and elected officials, and fostering an environment to cooperatively address problems.
“They all brought the sewer authority to a better place,” Ladouceur said of the commission and the City Council. The council approved $33 million in revenue bonds enabling the authority to move ahead with upgrades to the treatment plant and plans to extend sewers to Bayside, Riverview, and Highland Beach, as well as neighborhoods in Ward 1 and Ward 8. While the funding got a green light, efforts to revise the method of assessment and a host of other issues that are part of the enabling legislation encountered bumps.
A sticking point was commission efforts to get property owners to tie into sewers. A connect-capable fee seemed like the preferred method, but that encountered resistance, including state legislation exempting people from linking to the sewers.
Ladouceur’s passion for what he saw as issues of fairness also rubbed some state legislators, and his effort to push revisions to enabling legislation failed to gain legislative approval last year. This session, however, the volume was turned down, and working with lawmakers the enabling legislation passed both houses and became law without the governor’s signature last week. The legislation does not include the authority to enact a connect-capable fee.
But the measure, says Ladouceur, contains many positives.
On the top of his list is the method of sewer assessment. Under the existing system, property owners are assessed based on the linear footage of property on a sewer line. Ladocueur finds this inequitable, pointing out that homeowners with identical houses will end up paying different amounts based on sewer frontage even though they are accessing an identical service.
The commission wrestled with a fee that would be based on dividing the cost of a sewer project by the number of housing units served.
The commission also saw the need to implement some form of hardship provision to account for low-income and fixed-income property owners who couldn’t afford the additional monthly cost of paying an assessment or connecting to the system.
Ladouceur also finds the existing practice requiring homeowners to maintain low-pressure pumps inequitable. The authority installs the pumps in those homes that aren’t at an elevation for a gravity-feed into the system. However, as it is now, homeowners are responsible for replacing the pumps when they fail. As the pumps are part of the overall system, Ladouceur thinks the authority should be responsible for replacing them.
Such details as the rate of assessment and the pumps, Ladouceur expects to be addressed by the authority in its rules and regulations. Under the enabling legislation, the authority has a year in which to adopt rules and regulations, which Ladouceur said would be reviewed by the council.
The enabling legislation also extends the current 20-year assessment payment plan to 30 years and caps interest cost at 1.25 percent over the prime rate. The current rate on assessment payments varies from 6.3 to 9 percent.
Ladouceur said this is a simple-interest loan and can be paid off without penalty at any time.
Another provision exempts those who have recently installed an approved septic system from having to pay the burden of an assessment when sewers are extended to their neighborhood. Under the measure, homeowners would be exempt from making assessment payments for 20 years, Ladouceur said.
The councilman is looking for the authority to develop incentives for homeowners to link to the system such as discounted connection rates. His point is for the authority to treat homeowners as “customers,” not ratepayers.
Ladouceur views issued faced by the authority as falling into two categories “pre-Janine where a lot of problems are,” and after Janine Burke Wells assumed control of the authority.
He praised her for her leadership, adding that he expects the commission will continue to assist with the work needed to be done.
Burke Wells sees a lot of “positive impacts” to the legislation and said the authority now needs to “dig into” drafting rules and regulations.
In an email, Mayor Scott Avedisian listed the benefits of the bill adding, “build on ongoing efforts to increase transparency and public participation through additional language to require the Warwick Sewer Authority to hold public hearings for a variety of purposes.”
He pointed out the authority would be ooking at different ways for assessing sewer construction costs for planned future projects. WSA’s Rate Consultant is already looking at this using 3 different methods (traditional frontage, per lot, and per equivalent dwelling unit).