Costs trouble council as it approves sewer expansion
After 14 hearings, including one that drew a divided crowd of more than 300 on whether to expand Warwick sewers, the City Council gave first passage to $56 million in revenue bonds to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant and bring sewers to four neighborhoods where cesspools and failed septic systems are problematic. The council is slated to consider the measure for second passage on Dec. 9.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, Councilmen Joseph Solomon (D-Ward 4) and Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) had reservations over the impact of borrowing on the city and whether septic systems offered a viable alternative in light of the higher expense of building sewers.
They represented the two negative votes to the seven affirmative votes granting the Warwick Sewer Authority the approval to borrow $23 million for the work for the treatment plant, including $5 million in levee work to avert Pawtuxet River flooding of the facility, and $33 million for sewer extensions. As revenue bonds, rather than general obligation bonds that would have required voter approval and repayment by the city, they will be repaid by user rates in the case of the plant improvements and assessments on the new lines.
It was the projected impact on homeowners, who were told they could expect assessments ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 that fueled the protest.
“What good are sewers going to be when no one can afford to live in their house? This isn’t the time to do it. You must decide whether people stay in their house or not,” said Linda Lovedale to a smattering of applause.
The Council Sewer Review Commission, created and chaired by Councilman Ed Ladouceur (D-Ward 5), has wrestled with the issue since it took on the task of examining operations of the sewer authority and addressing the issues of impending deadlines on the phase-out of cesspools in coastal areas and the consent decree the city signed for upgrading the treatment plant. The commission also delved into the method of assessment, alternatives to sewers and means of reducing capital improvement and operating costs.
Ladouceur sees no alternatives to moving ahead with both programs. To do otherwise, he said, “is kicking the can down the road,” leaving homeowners with failing septic systems and cesspools in limbo and only promising higher future costs.
“I don’t believe the answer is for this council to do nothing,” Ladouceur said at the conclusion of the four-hour council hearing. Nor does Ladouceur see the work of the commission as over. He said the next step is for the commission to tackle enabling legislation that would allow them to alter the existing linear foot assessment to a per-unit cost and to increase council oversight of the sewer authority.
But, as for extending the system to Governor Francis Farms Phase III, the O’Donnell Hill section of East Natick, Northeast Gordon Pond, and three Bayside projects covering Riverview, Longmeadow and Highland Beach, Ladouceur said, “We can’t afford to ignore it. It’s got to be dealt with.”
Lending support was Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy for Save the Bay. Save the Bay was represented on the review commission, as were other stakeholders; including the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Coastal Resources Management Council, state elected representatives, the public, the sewer authority and the Narragansett Indians. The Narragansetts were at the table because the Bayside projects cover areas rich in archeological findings.
Noting the record number of beach closures this past summer, Hamblett said, “Warwick has done a lot and it needs to do more.”
But Merolla wasn’t buying that sewers are the only way to improve Bay water. He observed that North Kingstown relies heavily on septic systems and set in place a schedule to ensure they are functioning properly. And he said septic systems “recharge” the aquifer.
“Those are approved systems,” he said. “Don’t tell me a sewer system is better than a septic system.”
He pointed out that it is too costly to sewer Potowomut, so, in that instance, there has been a cost-benefit determination and that the same analysis should be done for other Warwick neighborhoods.
“What I’m concerned about is pricing people out of their homes,” he said.
Merolla also cited Potowomut to argue that septic systems are as good as sewers since DEM has approved them for the area.
Angelo Liberti, DEM chief of surface water protection, who served on the review commission, challenged Merolla’s conclusion. He said sewers are the answer in some areas while septic systems are in another.
“This is not North Kingstown and there’s not an aquifer that needs to be replenished,” he said.
Liberti also addressed the issue of the current Jan. 1, 2014 deadline for coastal area homeowners to close their cesspools. [Ladouceur said 3,000 Warwick homes have cesspools]. The cesspool deadline is of particular concern to the three Bayside projects, as many of those homes are within 200 feet of the coastline. Liberti said with approval of the bond funds, DEM would be likely to extend the deadline to 2020 by which time Bayside sewers should be completed.
Solomon questioned the impact of added bond debt on the authority and the ratepayers. Authority executive director Janine Burke said the usage rates, which increased 12 percent in the last year, account for the work that needs to be done at the plant. Added funds generated by that increase are now being used to repay the city for more than $4.5 million in advances to the authority.
Joseph Gallucci, sponsor of the bond resolution for sewer expansion, pointed out that prior sewer bonds have paid for sewers in areas other than Ward 8.
“We want our share over there,” he said.
“A working septic system is fine, but eventually it’s going to fail,” he said in response to some O’Donnell Hill residents who said they don’t need sewers nor do they want to pay for them.
With approval of the revenue bonds, the authority is ready to get started on raising the levee and upgrading the plant to reduce the discharge of phosphorous and nitrogen by this coming spring.
Roy Dempsey questioned the need for the upgrades, arguing it had not been proven the Warwick plant is the source of the pollutants. He asked why the city had not legally challenged the DEM directive, why had it signed a consent agreement mandating the improvements without seeking council approval.
Burke said the authority did its due diligence, finding the limits on discharges had been set nationally and given the experience of others that had challenged the directive, it was felt a legal battle would have wasted money.
“The best we could do is buy some time,” she said.