Citing costs, group asks for audit of Sewer Authority
A handful of residents say they have no faith in the Warwick Sewer Authority (WSA), claiming it has been mismanaged for more than 20 years. During the last few weeks, they have canvassed Wards 2, 3 and 6 and collected at least 633 signatures on a petition asking the City Council to call for an audit of the WSA.
Mayor Scott Avedisian, along with WSA Executive Director Janine Burke, said they don’t oppose an audit.
“I would certainly welcome it,” Burke said. “I seek out other professionals for advice all the time on how to make things better.”
Resident Roger Durand addressed the issue at last week’s budget hearing, saying that he and a group of citizens decided to take action because they are tired of the continuous rate increases.
Durand said in the last six years, rates have gone up approximately 100 percent. This year, the usage increase was more than 12 percent. In a recent report of Rhode Island annual residential sewer charges, the Narragansett Bay Commission ranked Warwick as the fifth highest municipality out of 14 as of 2011.
Durand claims the increases have been implemented because the WSA is carrying a $108 million debt and owes the city of Warwick for chronic deficits.
“That’s why they gave us an increase last year – to pay the city back,” Durand said. “Almost half the bill of sewer usage charges goes towards the sins of the past of the Warwick Sewer Authority. They owe money for the mismanagement and the underassessment of construction projects. That’s what’s driving up the costs.”
According to Burke, the WSA plans to repay the city $5.6 million by June 30, 2016. She said they are projected to pay $2.5 million this year, $2.3 million in 2014 and another payment in 2015. She said 47.1 percent of user fees go toward debt services.
“The Warwick Sewer Authority has had deficits for years and years and we had to dig out. We are in the process of doing that and we’ll be out in a couple of years,” said Burke, noting that in the recent past there was a 10-year period during which no increases were implemented but expenses were still going up. “Over time, we kept running deficits. The end of every year we’d be a million dollars short. It built up pretty quickly. There are definitely problems, but we are trying to fix them. We’re going in the right direction.”
She also said an additional 4 percent rate increase is set for September of this year, with another 1 or 2 percent increase next year, as they’re getting closer to a point where rates will stabilize.
Still, Durand and other residents, including Roy Dempsey, Don Fife, Lorraine Miller and John Kennedy, plan to continue their crusade. They said while the mayor claims there will be an $8 million surplus in city finances, $4 million of that sum banks on funds the WSA owes the city.
“He’s counting his chickens before they hatch,” Durand said.
As a group, they say the WSA has a history of keeping them in the dark pertaining to certain information. Durand said he has put forth Freedom of Information requests to WSA, asking them what percentage of rate payments cover usage bills, to no avail.
“They told us that since there are no documents to substantiate it, they don’t need to answer the questions, but less than a month later a response was sent to Senator [Michael] McCaffrey,” said Durand, who noted he turned to McCaffrey, along with State Representatives Joseph McNamara and Eileen Naughton, as well as Senator William Walaska, for help after the WSA denied him the information. “That’s transparency? The WSA has an illusion that it’s there, but it’s not there. Thank God for the members of the General Assembly.”
Kennedy agreed that the WSA lacks transparency. He connected to sewers about 18 years ago after having issues with his septic system and wishes he never did.
“It’s just been nothing but a money pit,” said Kennedy. “We’re tired of the increases and the inefficiency of them never getting back to the public on anything. It’s never-ending.”
Miller and Fife feel the same.
“We’re just tired of it,” Miller said. “It’s the same old story. We’re not making any more money than we used to and taxes keep going up, up, up. We’re just fed up.”
Fife added, “I don’t know anybody who’s happy with their sewer bill. All we had to do was tell people what it was about and they were eager to sign. We would have gotten a lot more signatures, but a lot of people weren’t home.”
But Burke said the authority has been open and honest with constituents and grant information when it is requested. At times, she said, their requests cost the WSA valuable time.
“[We] spend a lot of time going back and digging out this and that and answering this or that question when we really need to spend more time and energy moving forward trying to fix the problems that we have to deal with,” said Burke.
Dempsey said he and the other members of the group are also trying to fix the problems. They hope to help rectify the situation through their efforts.
“People readily want to sign the petition – they want to get a handle of what’s been happening here,” Dempsey said. “We’ve all been impacted negatively by the increasing sewer rates, as well as steady increases on our taxes, and this is a way of getting a little more transparency. We want to find out why there is so much debt in the Sewer Authority.”
Burke said the WSA has been tackling three primary issues to enhance their operations, including financial liability, infrastructure stability and stakeholder understanding and support. A goal is to better educate users about what the WSA offers.
“It’s clear to me that I need to work on that more as soon as possible,” she said. “I thought we had been doing that all along, but if people are signing petitions, it’s clear to us that they don’t know what it is we do and the value and level of service we provide.”
As for the City Council, Ward 2 Councilman Tom Chadronet and Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said their constituents have reached out to them regarding visits they received from Durand and the rest of the group. While 100 signatures were collected from Ward 2, 208 were collected in Ward 6, with 325 more from Ward 3. They were each provided with a copy of the names and addresses of individuals who signed the petition.
“Residents are complaining about the rates,” said Chadronet, who agrees that the rates have gotten “out of hand.” He, along with former WSA board member Fred Sullivan, also said that an internal audit of the WSA was conducted last year. “But I’m not privy to that audit,” said Chadronet. “I haven’t seen it.”
Vella-Wilkinson said quite a number of her residents contacted her to find out more about the claims Durand and company made while going door to door. Some wanted to know if there was any validity to the visit and whether she would favor an audit.
“I’d like to know who’s doing the audit and who’s paying for the audit,” she said. “I want to know exactly what it’s going to consist of.”
Vella-Wilkinson also said the people who are not connected to sewers are very concerned about what the potential cost will be. They don’t want to be in a situation where they invest money to upgrade their septic system, and then find out that the city decides to have mandatory sewer connections.
On the flip side, there are people who are already connected who feel that they are paying more because of the individuals who decided not to tie in after the project had been laid out.
“It’s a very complex situation,” she said. “But I’m happy that they provided us with the list of the names and addresses of those individuals because I intend to go to their homes and hear from them directly.”
Council President Donna Travis, who represents Ward 6, was contacted for comment but did not respond in time for press.
Durand, who said he still had to pay $8,000 for the pipes that were installed in front of his house last August even though he’s not hooked up to the system, said walking Wards 2, 3 and 6 is just the beginning. They plan on tackling another ward at some point this week.
“People are just fed up,” Durand said. “Where is all the money going? Show us the books. Rates keep going up. People can’t afford it and they’re asking the question, ‘Why?’ That’s the bottom line.”
The council was slated to vote on three pieces of legislation last night concerning sewers, including two sponsored by Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci. While one addresses the state-enabling act for the WSA, another aims to obtain revenue bonds - versus general obligation bonds - for projects that are ready to be sewered in the next few years.
Revenue bonds, Gallucci said, are paid by money that’s collected with usage charges and assessments, while general obligation bonds typically are funded through taxes.
“It’s a matter of clarification of what the Warwick Sewer Authority does,” said Gallucci. “I have no problem with the Warwick Sewer Authority. As far as increases, the increases are necessary when they do their assessments for connections. I find them to be most cooperative. They are trying to accommodate everyone. And the Sewer Authority is annually audited just like the other departments.”
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur also drafted legislation relative to sewers. He seeks to establish a committee that would be responsible for reviewing the issues at hand in order to sewer the remaining proposed installations, as he said a lack of sewers was one of top three complaints he heard from constituents during the 15 weeks he campaigned for his seat.
“I had people telling me, ‘if you win this election, get me sewers,’” said Ladouceur. “But that doesn’t mean, ‘get me sewers at any cost.’ I want put together a committee to address all the issues of ‘we have 55 percent of the city that is already sewered and how are we going to get the other 45 percent sewered? Where is the money going to come from? How and where are we going to get it done? What’s the best way to do it? How is it going to be affordable and sustainable for the citizens of the city as we move forward? There’s more to it than saying, ‘let’s pass a revenue bond and start putting in more sewer lines.’”
Ladouceur also is looking for a more “fair and equitable” way to calculate assessments.
“Let’s say the cost to sewer Highland Beach is ‘X’ amount of dollars,” he said. “The net amount of ‘X’ should be divided by the amount of homes that have received the service and that is what the assessment is.”
Ladouceur said Walaska, along with State Representative Frank Ferri, have agreed to serve on the committee, pending the approval of the legislation. He’d like to see a member of the general public on the committee, as well. After they gather information, they’d make recommendations to the City Council.
“Once we have all those answers, we’ll have a successful sewage plant and we can move forward,” Ladouceur said.