FEMA steps up to the plate...finally
In the end, Warwick sewer customers (we don’t call them ratepayers anymore, at the insistence of Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur) can expect a bit of a break on their quarterly bills.
Now, don’t expect something dramatic, because that’s not going to happen.
In fact, while a federal grant will pay 90 percent of the cost of reinforcing the levee at the wastewater treatment plant, rates won’t be coming down. Rather, as Warwick Sewer Authority executive director Janine Burkes observes, the authority’s debt carrying costs won’t be as high and, subsequently, rates won’t be either.
Foremost, it is only logical that the levees be heightened after the floods of March 2010 inundated the treatment plant, causing $14 million in damages. The authority applied for $7 million in federal funding in November 2010 and persistently pursued a grant to do the work. One would have thought the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have embraced such an application – after all, if the treatment plant is kept operational during a flood, it stands to reason that not only would the plant be spared, but those it serves would not face damages, too.
But FEMA didn’t rush to step up to the plate. The authority, which was also faced with upgrading its treatment operations, went ahead with engineering reinforcements to the levee and its treatment operations with the assistance of the City Council that approved $23 million in revenue bonds for the projects.
Last week, Senator Jack Reed and other members of the congressional delegation joyously announced $3.6 million in FEMA funding had been approved for the levee project. The money will pay for 90 percent of the work. Projected costs have dropped since that initial estimate of $7 million.
Not to plan for a 500-year storm, as the revisions are designed to do, would have been folly. The Warwick authority assumed that responsibility and now, too, has FEMA.
But although the federal assistance will surely help, it’s the customers who pay to keep the system operational. Added federal grants would certainly help to reduce those costs, although it is unlikely additional grants are forthcoming.
We see two means of restraining additional operational cost increases: running the operation as efficiently as possible and increasing the number of users to spread the costs.
Both are directions the Sewer Review Commission, under the leadership of Councilman Ladouceur, has looked at. Unfortunately, mandatory connections have been eliminated from enabling legislation now before the General Assembly. As the authority looks to expand sewers, the issue of connections needs to be visited again. The system is an asset to the city and those who have access to it should avail themselves of the service and share in the cost.