Setting guidelines for sewer operations
One assessment fee for all property owners affected by new sewer construction, and a 30-year payment plan at reduced rates, is being studied by the City Council Sewer Review Advisory Commission as it drafts legislation to regulate the Warwick Sewer Authority.
“It needs to be fair and equitable,” Ed Ladouceur said of legislation being worked on by the commission.
The Ward 5 councilman chairs the commission that continues to maintain a rigorous schedule following council approval earlier this year of $56 million in revenue bonds to upgrade treatment processes and heighten the levee at the wastewater treatment plant and extend sewers to five neighborhoods.
In an interview Friday, Ladouceur said the commission is close to finalizing a draft of enabling legislation for council consideration. Once passed by the council, the legislation will need General Assembly approval to be enacted.
Using legislation drafted by the Warwick Sewer Authority last year as a guide, the commission is compiling a document point-by-point that will serve as the map for sewer operations going forward.
“The driving force behind the whole thing is simple,” said Ladouceur, “It’s to do the right thing.”
But putting a plan together is far from simple.
A key consideration for property owners who gain access to sewers as the authority takes on $33 million in construction projects beginning in 2015 will be the cost of assessments. Under the plan, linear foot assessments would be replaced with one rate for all property owners coming under that phase of construction. The estimated cost of the projects, bringing sewers to an estimated 1,500 property owners, is $33 million.
“You would equally spread it out,” whether the sewers were being installed in Gov. Francis Farms, Bayside, Greenwood or O’Donnell Hill, Ladouceur said. Also, the basic unit assessment would not change, regardless of the size of the property.
Given projections, Ladouceur expects assessments to be in the range of $25,000 to $30,000.
Based on simple division, assessments would be $22,000 if the six sewer projects cost a total of $33 million and 1,500 property owners equally share the cost.
WSA director Janine Burke said yesterday that assessments could be reduced if elements of projects, such as a new Mill Cove bridge on Tidewater Drive, are deemed public works projects.
Even at $25,000 to $30,000, Ladouceur said that cost is comparable to a septic system. He said septic systems could be more costly, especially on small lots and with unsuitable soil conditions. There’s also the likelihood a septic system will fail, he said.
“It’s a misconception that sewers are so much more expensive than septic,” he said.
Lowering and spreading the cost of sewers have been prime objectives of the commission. The commission has had discussions with William Sequino, director of the Clean Water Finance Agency that would underwrite the bonds at a reduced rate to the sewer authority. Just last week, Burke said, the authority was able to borrow $7 million, which it will use to start treatment plant upgrades, at a rate of 2.7 percent for 20 years.
Ladouceur said Sequino is exploring the feasibility of extending the current 20-year payment plan to 30 years.
“We need to bring relief to people right now,” he said of the extended payment period aimed at reducing annual payments.
Regardless of whether that is possible, going forward Ladouceur wants interest rates applied to property owner assessment payments to be no more than 1.25 percent more than what the authority is paying to borrow the money. At current rates, this would put the interest paid by the property owner under 5 percent.
Going forward, Ladouceur is focused on containing operational costs while gaining the environmental and health safeguards sewers provide. He would like to see the elimination of cesspools.
“I think cesspools are the way of third world nations,” he said. “They don’t do anything but give you a big hole in the ground.”
Presently, properties with cesspools and capable of tying into sewers are required to link to the sewer when they are sold. If sewers are not available, the new owner must then install a septic system.
“They should have to connect or pay a connect-capable fee,” Ladouceur said of those with cesspools.
Ladouceur finds it hard to believe people who claim their septic systems work well yet they haven’t had to do anything to them in years. He favors a required maintenance program of those with septic systems with periodic inspections to ensure they are not allowing pollutants to seep into rivers and ponds and the bay.
But what he is also promoting is for homeowners with access to sewers to tie into the system and start sharing in operational costs.
“We can’t pay for it with 50 percent of the people tied in,” he said. “The end result is that you have to generate enough revenue to support the infrastructure.”
Connect-capable fees designed to promote sewer tie-ins have been suggested in the past, but never gained City Council approval. Whether that will be the case again remains to be seen. If a fee is proposed this time, it will be at the suggestion of a commission with two council members – Joseph Gallucci (D-Ward 8) is the commission co-chair – and not coming from the sewer authority.
Ladouceur is also looking for more accountability from the sewer authority. He would like to have the authority report quarterly to the council. He would expect to hear construction updates and issues coming before the authority.
So far what is coming out of the review commission is a far cry from suggestions over the last three years ranging from the dissolution of the sewer authority to greater control from the mayor and council.
“The answer,” Ladouceur said, “is not to throw everything out, but to give them [the authority] the tools to do a better job.”
As for the future, Ladouceur said the work of the commission is far from over.
“This will continue to be a work in progress. We have come a very long way in the last seven months and we are determined to do what is fair and equitable for all the citizens in the city of Warwick,” he said.