With City Council approval of $56 million in revenue bonds, Warwick Sewer Authority executive director Janine Burke is anxious to get started on improvements to the wastewater treatment plant and plans to extend sewers in six neighborhoods.
But while the sewer authority has the green light on funding, the process is going to take years.
The first of the requests, for $10.5 million in borrowing from the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, will come in February as part of a $90 million bond issue, said agency director William Sequino. Those would be used to start work to bring treatment in line with requirements for phosphorous and nitrogen and to raise the Pawtuxet River levee. Burke said additional borrowings would be made to complete the projects. She said there is still the prospect that the city will gain Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approval of a $5 million grant for the levee work.
Sequino said the earliest the city could seek funding for the sewers, projected at $33 million, is 2015. The projects would have to be on the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) priority list to receive funding.
Aaron Guckian, authority chairman, is pleased with the outcome of numerous meetings during the last six months and the council vote.
“I’m so happy we could get an answer and get everything on the table,” he said.
What he sees as critical now is to address enabling legislation; develop plans so people know when they can expect to get sewers; and to get a fix on costs.
As for cost, the authority will explore alternatives to the conventional means of installing sewers in an effort to address archeological issues and reduce expenses. Directional drilling, along with “package plants” and vacuum systems, will be looked at. Sources for grants will be explored, Burke said on Dec. 26.
“It seems like it is a new day,” she said of the developments since last summer when Save the Bay held a press conference at Oakland Beach to draw attention to the high number of beach closures due to poor water quality. Also, this spring, Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci docketed a resolution for a sewer revenue bond primarily to extend sewers to the O’Donnell Hill neighborhood in Ward 8, as well as complete sewers in Governor Francis Farm and bring sewers to Riverview, Highland Beach and Longmeadow, which have become known as the Bayside projects in Ward 5.
But the council was wary.
The sewer authority has been a source of complaints. Council members have suggested increasing controls on the authority and even dissolving it.
Under a resolution docketed by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, the council created the Sewer Review Commission that started reviewing all facets of the authority, from its governance to alternatives to the construction of sewers. The commission brought together a diverse group that, in one way or another, is linked to addressing the issue of wastewater treatment. Commission members included representatives of the Narragansett Indians, DEM, Coastal Resources Management Council, Save the Bay, the public and others.
“If it wasn’t for Councilmen Ladouceur and Gallucci, I don’t think we would be where are. It [the commission] took the time to understand the issues,” said Burke.
She believes the process has reached the “tipping point” where people are looking for solutions rather than remaining focused on the mistakes of the past.
In the immediate future, Ladouceur aims to focus the commission’s attention on changes in the sewer authority’s enabling legislation to, among other things, amend the current linear foot system of assessments, adopt sewer assessment interest rates more aligned to the authority’s cost of borrowing and to extend the terms for authority and user borrowing up to 30 years. Ladouceur aims to have the legislative package, which could also include revisions in authority governance, to the council for consideration in time to bring it before the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
The commission was slated to start discussing changes in enabling legislation the morning of Dec. 30, but couldn’t for lack of a quorum.
Ladouceur was disappointed not to get started before the New Year but, if history is a guide, he won’t let things drag.
Among the potential savings to be explored is linking construction of a new Tidewater Drive Mill Creek Bridge, a project the city has sought low-cost Clean Water Finance Agency funding for, with the Bayside projects. Sequino said the bridge project estimated at $1.6 million is ranked sixth in a series of municipal applications for $6.5 million reserved for road and bridge projects. As the five projects with higher ranking total about $2 million, it would seem the bridge project is in line for the funds. Sequino cautioned, however, that awards have not been finalized and are dependent on municipal borrowing approval. He could not say what the terms of repayment would be, as that would be worked out.
He also said a 30-year repayment plan for sewer borrowing is being explored. In addition to Warwick, he said, Narragansett Bay Commission has inquired about 30-year loans. He said similar loan authorities in 18 states currently offer 30-year terms.
“It’s not going to be cheap,” said Guckian, “nor is it going to be overly expensive.” He notes people will be able to pay assessments over at least 20 years. That could be amended with enabling legislation and bonding approvals.
Last week, Gallucci said the plan is to conduct a survey of the O’Donnell Hill area, where there is considerable resistance to sewers because of the cost, and assess the projected lives of existing septic systems. The plan is to provide a comparison to replacing those systems or installing sewers.