Mandatory connections axed from sewer bill
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur did something out of character Monday night. He backed away from what he believes is preferable, so that the rest of what he says is needed to bring accountability to the Warwick Sewer Authority will gain General Assembly approval.
Almost since Ladouceur took on setting things right at the authority and extending sewers to neighborhoods promised sewers for years without action, he has argued to be financially sustainable, people must tie into the system once it is built. It is those usage fees that pay for operation of the system and the more people connected, the less it’s going to cost for everyone.
The system currently has 21,000 customers. Another 2,700 have access to the system, but haven’t connected.
But on Monday, Ladouceur amended the proposed enabling legislation the Council Sewer Review Commission had worked on at numerous meetings. He struck out provisions that would have made connections mandatory and applied fees to those refusing to tie in.
Will the package of revisions have a better chance of gaining legislative approval without mandatory connections?
That’s hard to say, but, no doubt mandatory connections have long been a hot button and without them much of the wind is gone from the sails of the group hammering at the authority.
But even with that measure removed, there was council opposition to the enabling legislation. Shortly before midnight and after the public was given the opportunity to comment, the vote was 5-2 to approve the resolution. Ward 5 Councilman Joseph Solomon and Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla cast opposing votes. Joseph Gallucci (D-Ward 8) and Charles Donovan (D-Ward 7) were not present.
Merolla called the sewer authority “an albatross around everyone’s neck.” He charged the authority of saying it would do one thing only to do another; that it’s not managed properly and that septic systems are less expensive and serve to recharge the ground water.
He also jumped on costs, claiming that septic systems are less costly to build and maintain than sewers. Solomon focused on assessments, wanting to know what expenses the homeowner would face.
Support of the legislation come from homeowners, realtors and environmentalists. Opposition came from homeowners who focused on costs.
Citing the 500 who signed petitions in opposition to paying for sewers other than their own, resident Roger Durand said, “The people have been listened to.” He went on to say, “We still don’t know whose paying for the new sewers.”
Gene Nadeau argued that no one should be forced to change from either a cesspool or septic system if they don’t have problems.
And favoring the enabling legislation, Jane Austin, a former member of the review commission, called sewers a “basic public service.”
Stephanie VanPatten of Riverview said her neighbors have been promised for the last 20 years and that most of them would connect when they are finally built. While supportive of the legislation, Topher Hamblett of Save the Bay said without mandatory connections, both the environment and those on the system who will bear all the costs will suffer.
Ladouceur highlighted provisions of the measure, emphasizing that with quarterly appearances before the council there is improved oversight. He also talked of fixing interest costs on assessments at 1.25 percent more than the rate the authority borrows the money at. He said the legislation would enable the authority to develop hardship programs for those who have difficulty paying costs. Ladouceur spoke of the hours that went into commission hearings and the work the group did to explore alternatives. Sewers, he said, are the best solution for much of the city.
“This isn’t something that happened overnight,” he said. “The most important job we need to do is to make the Warwick Sewer Authority a better vendor.”
Earlier this year the review commission proposed $56 million in sewer bonds. Of the total, $23 million is to be used to heighten the levee to protect the wastewater treatment plant from Pawtuxet River flooding, and for plant upgrades to meet requirements to reduce the discharge of phosphorous and nitrogen. The remaining bond funds, which also gained council approval, will be used to extend sewers to six neighborhoods.
Although stripping mandatory connections from the legislation was not his preference, Ladouceur said he thought much of what the authority needs to accomplish could be done through its rules and regulations. And in case the council had any concerns, he added, they and the mayor will have the final authority.
The measure now goes to the General Assembly.