Panel addresses sewer funding, future projects
A council committee charged with setting a plan to correct inconsistencies in sewer assessments and develop a plan for sewer extension may not come up with answers that satisfy everyone. But that’s fine, according to its chairman, Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur.
“We’ve got to do what’s good for the whole,” he said at the initial meeting Monday morning at City Hall. “We’ve got the investment [the treatment plant and infrastructure]. Let’s iron out the wrinkles and move on.”
The freshman councilman, who called for creation of the committee, said that the lack of sewers and the mandates to eliminate cesspools in coastal areas were issues raised frequently while campaigning for office. Since being a councilman, he has learned resolving those issues involve a number of factors, many of which center on funding.
He told the committee his approach is to bring the stakeholders to the table, identify the problems, look for solutions and then reach a consensus.
“I’m not interested in political problems or perceived issues,” he said.
He asked why 45 percent of the city is still without sewers.
“How do we get there?” he asked. “Let’s identify what are the real problems and get out there and solve them.”
That could be difficult, as some on the committee are likely to have different priorities, the most striking being those who will be watching out for the costs faced by users and taxpayers, and those who put the environment first.
However, at the prompting of chief of staff and committee member Mark Carruolo, there was consensus that sewers need to be extended and that the lack of them has an effect on the bay.
In addition to the city, the committee also includes representatives from the environmental organization Save the Bay; the state Senate and House; the Warwick Sewer Authority; the Department of Environmental Management (DEM); the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC); and the public. Michelle Komar, a professional wetlands scientist and a regular at council meetings, serves as the public member.
Angelo Liberti from the DEM and James Boyd from CRMC expressed their discomfort with roles where they could be setting fees and user rates. Both saw those as local responsibilities. Also, as they are oversight agencies, they saw the potential conflict of working on a plan they might later review for the state.
“Funding is not the only issue,” said Ladouceur.
He welcomed input from Liberti and Boyd as advisors to the committee.
And Ladouceur discovered Liberti wasn’t entirely in agreement with his logic that it doesn’t make sense to extend the sewer system until the treatment plant levees are heightened to prevent a flooding and the rebuilding of the facility at a cost of more than $11 million in 2010. Liberti emphasized the need to upgrade the plant for the enhanced removal of phosphorus and nitrogen by a May 2016 deadline. And he saw the levee work as independent of extending sewers.
Sewer Authority executive director Janine Burke placed the cost of plant upgrades at $14 million and the levee improvements to bring it to the level of a 500-year storm at $5 million. She said both projects have been designed and much of it has been issued permits.
Funding remains an issue. The authority has applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to pay for 75 percent of the levee work. The authority is looking for City Council approval of revenue bonds to pay for the city’s share as well as the plant upgrades. The authority is looking to construct the projects in tandem, even using some of the earth excavated for treatment tanks to augment the levee.
Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci, who was elected deputy chairman of the committee, said about $62 million in sewer service extensions have been identified apart from the treatment plant and levee. He has proposed an initial revenue bond of $23 million that was to have come before the council early this month. As Ladouceur was moving ahead with the committee, Gallucci postponed action until September. Gallucci is also the sponsor of amendments to the authority’s enabling legislation that was drafted by the authority. Those amendments addressed a variety of issues, including the current method of linear foot assessments and the option to postpone the levying of an assessment for 20 years for a property owner who had recently installed a septic system. Changes require General Assembly approval but revisions failed to gain council approval and without that, the authority didn’t appeal to the legislators.
Ladouceur is hopeful the committee can reach consensus on amendments. He favored the suggestion that the committee brief the city’s legislative delegation prior to the changes going before the General Assembly.
Sewer Authority chairman Aaron Guckian welcomed the opportunity for the committee to clear up “misinformation” about the role and functions of the authority. He also called for action.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” he said.
Likewise, Senator William Walaska sees the need for a plan.
“Inconsistence is the issue,” he said.
He said constituents ask him, “Are sewers going down the road in a matter of years, when is it going to happen?”
Ladouceur aims to have answers along with what it is going to cost.