Sewer authority seeks approval to revamp assessment system
When Sharon Roberts bought her home in Buttonwoods, she was faced with a dilemma. The property’s cesspool system failed and she needed to do something. She checked with the Warwick Sewer Authority and was told there were no plans to sewer Buttonwoods. Left with only one option, she installed a new septic system, costing more than $8,000.
Barely a year later, she spotted workmen marking the road in front of her house with orange spray paint. She asked what they were doing and learned the city would be installing sewers.
Roberts told her story to the City Council Monday night as it considered whether to support the authority’s bid to update its enabling legislation that, among revisions, would allow the authority to defer assessments up to 20 years for those who recently invested in a new septic system.
As part of the revisions, the authority would also be able to alter the existing linear-foot system of assessment.
But none of that can happen without approval from the General Assembly, and state legislators aren’t going to consider a bill unless it gains the endorsement of the City Council. Will that happen?
“The original plan was to get it to the General Assembly with time to spare. We’re pushing it,” WSA executive director Janine Burke said Tuesday.
Following a committee hearing on the measure that delayed Monday’s Council meeting by almost 90 minutes, no action was taken on the enabling legislation or two other proposals impacting the authority. Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci is seeking the council’s endorsement for the authority to seek bonds totaling $23 million. The money would be used to extend sewers. And Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur would like to form a committee to study authority finances.
The measures are slated to come before the council again this Monday.
As evidenced by the turnout and questions this past Monday, the cost of sewers is a hot issue. That’s not news. The escalating cost of assessments, reflecting a more realistic cost of construction than prior rates, and higher usage rates designed to help pay off authority debt, have fueled efforts such as the current campaign for a WSA audit. That petition has more than 630 signatures.
John Revens, counsel for the WSA, outlined the purpose of amending the authority’s legislation. He said the authority has received many complaints over the method of linear foot assessments. Under the system, a property owner with 70 feet of frontage, for example, pays half the assessment of the property owner with 140 feet, although the houses may be identical.
The enabling legislation does not specify a new method but enables the authority to assess an amount “that bears a reasonable relation to the cost of construction to the city and the authority of the service rendered the user.”
Burke said several options have been discussed, including linking assessments to zoning to reflect the different lot sizes; land use; and housing units. As it is now, she said, the acreage component of the existing method has some single-family property owners faced with an assessment exceeding $40,000. Presently, such homeowners are only required to pay a rate based on a maximum of 125 feet, but the balance of the assessment remains a liability.
Burke hopes that issue could be addressed, as she would like to see open space and large family compounds preserved.
“There’s some reason this was done,” she said of the current system. “It’s just not working any more.”
“What Janine has identified are things that should be changed,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday when asked about changes to the enabling legislation. He said he has talked with Senator Michael McCaffrey and other Warwick legislators and that McCaffrey had a list of questions that were referred to Burke.
Avedisian is hopeful revisions to the legislation will gain approval this year.
“If we do nothing, then we’re stuck with the same bad system we have,” he said.
As for what the authority is repaying the city, Burke said the outstanding balance was $5.6 million as of last June. That will be reduced by $2.5 million by the end of the fiscal year. Another $2.6 million payment is budgeted next year, leaving about $600,000 to be paid off during the 2015 fiscal year.