Paying for sewers
It’s a matter of numbers.
Understandably, people are concerned what it is going to cost them to have sewers run in front of their homes. That’s been an issue for as long as the city started building a sewer system in the 1960s. Back then there was federal assistance, but even then sewers weren’t free. People complained about assessments that by today’s cost are a comparative pittance. Even after paying assessments they didn’t connect to the system, using the argument, “Why should I pay for it, when my cesspool works fine?”
On Monday we heard the same reasoning from Riverview, Highland Beach and Bayside residents. The arguments went like this: I don’t need sewers. I can’t afford sewers. The city or the feds should help pay for the sewers and why can’t I be treated like other Warwick homeowners and pay less?
Driving the outrage is the projected cost of $22,000 per homeowner for sewers. That number is not hard and true. It could be higher and it could be lower.
Essentially, the assessment is a reflection of what it cost to build sewers. This is the cost of the pipe in the ground and a pumping station, if needed, to link into the bigger system. It doesn’t cover the expense of operating the system or of improvements to the wastewater treatment plant. Those costs are met through operating fees based on water use.
Until the last few years when the Council Sewer Review Commission initiated by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur conducted a comprehensive study of the system and what could be done to extend sewers to people who needed them, assessments were based on the linear footage of a lot. Say a house lot had 100 feet of sewer line in front of it. That number was multiplied by a per foot charge to arrive at an assessment.
It was reasoned that system is inherently unfair. People with only a small wedge of land on a sewer line paid far less than a property owner with greater frontage although the sewers are serving only one housing unit. Similarly, the rate didn’t change if it was a multi-unit house. Some consideration was given for large tracts of land, but generally it was a linear foot rate.
Where the sewer authority failed was to regularly change the rate so that it accurately reflected costs. When it finally took corrective steps there was an outcry.
Now the authority is leaning toward a per-unit sewer assessment based on cost. There are questions to be answered: How would the rate apply to homes with in-law apartments or multi units and would the rate apply by project or by groupings of projects? Could the authority, for example, divide the overall cost of sewer extensions in Governor Francis, Bayside, O’Donnell Hill and Northwest Gorton by the overall number of units and come up with a single rate?
Regardless, the days of federally subsidized sewers and assessments that don’t cover costs are over.
Ladouceur and his commission have sought to make the expense more manageable by reducing assessment interest rates and extending the payment period from 20 to 30 years. There are provisions for hardship cases and for those who have recently gone to the expense of a new septic system.
It would be nice to know what that per-unit rate is now. But that’s impossible until the authority establishes policy on how it is going to treat such variables as multi-family units on a single service and knows the true cost of a project. Projections provided by the authority put the per-unit assessment cost for the four projects on the drawing board in a range from $15,000 to $19,000. Higher amounts have been talked about, but until actual costs as well as how those costs will be shared is established, it’s premature to say what the amount will be.
One thing is clear. To delay the extension of sewers to any of the four neighborhoods as planned over the next two years not only will drive up costs, but place those with failing septic systems or dependent on a cesspool in hardship.