After nine meetings and the testimony of numerous officials, ranging from a representative of the Narragansett Indians to the executive director of the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, the chairman of the council commission reviewing the Warwick Sewer Authority says the work of the group falls into two phases.
First, said Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur, the commission needs to decide whether to recommend further expansion of the sewer system and, if that is the case, what projects should be done.
Under phase two, Ladouceur lists changes in the authority’s enabling legislation that includes how it will assess property owners should the system be expanded and the governance of the authority.
Ladouceur aims to hold a public meeting – initially he thought there might be one for each of the three projects under immediate consideration – later this month. [The commission is expected to set the date at its 2 p.m. meeting at City Hall this afternoon.] At the public meeting, Ladouceur plans to pass along information learned by the commission and provide cost estimates on sewers and options to sewers.
On the top of the list are sewers for the O’Donnell Hill area of Ward 8; Bayside in Ward 5, which includes Riverview and Highland Beach; and the remainder of Governor Francis Farms in Ward 1.
But will the City Council approve sewer revenue bonds to enable expansion of the system and what happens if they don’t, the city administration is asking.
“If you don’t bring sewers to Highland Beach, I don’t know what you do,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said Friday.
A number of Highland Beach homeowners still have cesspools, which must be phased out. Many are on such small lots that building conventional septic systems is impossible. The option is an advanced above ground system that can cost $40,000, assuming there is adequate space for it.
“There are critical areas that need relief,” agrees chief of staff Mark Carruolo.
Carruolo serves on the review commission. He finds the meetings have been helpful in educating the members on the issues faced by the authority, but he can’t say where it will go.
“I don’t know what the strategy is at the end of the day,” he said.
He is hopeful the recommendation whether to move ahead is not simply influenced by the most vocal people at the public meeting. Personally, he sees sewers as making for a cleaner bay and a benefit to the community as a whole.
“I don’t think the argument is whether sewers are good. It’s [how] to make it affordable and fair to the property owner,” he said.
“Whether you are connected or not, you are getting a benefit from sewers, a cleaner bay and better water runoff,” he said.
Ladouceur represents Highland Beach and he knows the issues these property owners face. However, sewers promise to be expensive. There is support for the argument that the cost of extending sewers be fully borne by those who would gain access to them. That is what assessments were designed to do. But, because the authority failed to adjust rates to reflect rising construction costs, user fees are paying much of the interest and principal costs of prior bonds.
A group that has been closely following the committee’s deliberations has collected more than 500 signatures opposing the use of user fees to pay off expansion of the system.
Should the commission recommend sewer expansion, Ladouceur favors doing multiple projects rather than piecemeal approvals.
“Get in there and do them all now,” he said.
He reasons bond issuance and construction costs would be less.
It could be a big nut. The authority puts the cost of bringing sewers to the rest of the city, exclusive of Potowomut and a few other areas, at $65 million, said Ladouceur. That does not include $16 million to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant to meet more stringent regulations on the discharge of phosphorous and nitrogen into the Pawtuxet River and $5 million to raise the height of levees that failed to hold back the March 2010 flood waters. The flood inundated the plant, closing down operations and cost more than $10 million in repairs.
“We have to raise the levee,” said Ladouceur. “You don’t drive a car with bald tires.”
Funding for the plant upgrades, which have been designed and have been mandated by the Department of Environmental Management would also come from revenue bonds. As these would benefit all users, their repayment would have to come from user fees.
“Rates would have to go up,” says Ladouceur.
Ladouceur is critical of the authority as viewing those linked to the service as “users” and not “customers.”
“‘I’m the boss and I’m going to make you tie in’ is not the answer,” he said. Instead, the authority should be educating people on the benefits of sewers. He said they should also be working to lower costs by coming up with reasonable interest rates on assessment payments – no more than 1 percent over the cost of borrowing the funds – and working with contractors to provide reasonable connection charges.
As for the second phase of the committee’s task, that of governance, Ladouceur said the mayor should maintain control over the authority. He thinks there should be City Council representation on the board and that there should be term limits.
The immediate question is whether the commission will recommend approving revenue bonds for any of the work and, if it does, whether that will gain council approval.
Ladouceur isn’t saying how he feels … yet.