Sewers: A citywide asset
Whether they have access to sewers or not, many Warwick residents are going to pay more to dispose of wastewater.
That appears to be the bottom line from the more than 70 hours the council sewer review commission has put into examining whether the system should be extended and what that will cost.
Cost is on the top of the commission’s list and an issue it expects to address when it reports to the full council next Wednesday. But, as the panel and its chairman Edgar Ladouceur quickly discovered, there is no easy answer to the question and that, in fact, prior operations and practices of the authority are responsible for the inequities – especially in assessments – that are the root for the authority’s burden of debt and operational costs.
Last Wednesday, about 300 people, mostly residents from four neighborhoods where sewers are being proposed, learned they could face assessments ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 per dwelling. Those estimates were daunting for many who already have difficulty making mortgage payments, on top of taxes and insurance.
But many have their backs against a wall. They have cesspools that must be replaced by septic systems or sewers. Depending on ground conditions, a septic system could cost upwards of $30,000.
That’s half of the issue.
The authority faces a December 2016 Department of Environmental Management (DEM) deadline to upgrade its treatment plant. Those costs, plus raising the levee to prevent flooding from the Pawtuxet, are projected at $23 million. The cost would be paid through increased operational charges to all users.
The commission has looked at these issues from every angle in hope of reducing costs. They have looked at improving the construction process to avoid cost overruns and change orders. They are looking for federal grants. They are talking about lower interest rates to the 20-year assessment payment plan, as well as exempting property owners who recently installed septic systems from payments for up to 20 years.
So far, they haven’t found a low-cost fix. We would be surprised if they did.
Short of getting DEM to alter regulations, the only alternative to treatment plant upgrades is an appeal to the courts or simply to violate the law. That could be costly, with no guarantee of the outcome. And it would do nothing to improve the environment.
On the matter of extending sewers, some savings might be realized by combining efforts with the Water Division and National Grid to simultaneously upgrade water and gas mains or when the city repaves roads. That’s worth pursuing.
As the $130 million approved by voters for sewer expansion was a general obligation bond, some savings to ratepayers could be generated if this obligation was returned to the city and all the taxpayers. The administration turned that debt over to the authority, meaning only those with sewers are carrying the cost.
Is that fair?
While it is not envisioned that everyone will have access to sewers, sewers are a benefit to the city as a whole. They make for a healthier environment and they boost property values and offer businesses a place to grow and prosper. Should not the city collectively be committed to make this happen and not just those already connected or those facing the cost of new lines?