Sewer legislation dead in water this session
Even the city’s biggest champion for the extension of sewers and improvements in sewer operations doesn’t hold much hope for the General Assembly passing enabling legislation this year, which, among other things, could result in a change in sewer assessments.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur assessed the possibility of the legislation gaining approval in this session “as nil” after last week’s meeting with the city’s legislative delegation. Ladouceur founded and chaired the council sewer review commission that was created last summer and, since then, has held scores of meetings. The outcome has been council approval of $56 million in revenue bonds to extend sewers to six neighborhoods and upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, as well as make improvements to the Pawtuxet River levee that was washed over during the flood of 2010, inundating the plant and causing about $14 million in damages.
The council also approved the enabling legislation drafted by the commission, which requires legislative approval.
From discussions with those who attended the legislative briefing Senator William Walaska helped arrange, the half-hour session was designed to give lawmakers the opportunity to ask questions about the legislation but it quickly went from bad to worse. Accompanying Ladouceur was Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci, vice chairman of the sewer review panel, but it was Ladouceur who did most of the talking. The discussion quickly became heated when Senator Michael McCaffrey questioned if the bill required non-users of the system to connect. Rep. Frank Ferri, who served on the commission and was co-sponsor of the legislation with Representatives David Bennett and K. Joseph Shekarchi, called the briefing “lively.”
When it drafted legislation, the commission wrestled with mandatory connections. Currently, the system has 21,000 users but it could have about an additional 7,000 who have chosen not to tie in. While these property owners are paying sewer assessments based on the footage of pipe in front of their property, they are not bearing any of the system’s operational costs that underwrite the expense of upgrades to the treatment plant the authority is currently undertaking.
Although the commission reasoned all those who could access it should underwrite the sewer system, the issue of mandatory connections was so volatile that Ladouceur removed it from the bill. Instead, the enabling legislation gives the sewer authority the power to address mandatory connections and the equally controversial issue of how to create equitable assessments to the sewer authority board. To ensure oversight, the City Council would have the power to approve regulations and policies adopted by the sewer authority.
At the request of constituents from Governor Francis Farms, Rep. Joseph McNamara and Senator McCaffrey pushed through legislation denying mandatory connections in that area some years ago. According to accounts, tempers flared when McCaffrey insisted the bill contained mandatory connections and Ladouceur argued that it didn’t.
“It was a disaster,” said one attendee who asked not to be identified.
Ladouceur doesn’t believe the delay in passing the enabling legislation, which now wouldn’t be heard until next year’s session of the General Assembly, would delay the design and extension of sewers to six areas, at a projected cost of $33 million, although the method of assessments has not been resolved.
“The sewer authority has to come up with a proposed rate of assessment,” said Ladouceur this week. He argued the authority is best positioned to promulgate the rules and regulations and for the mayor and council to provide the advice and consent.
Ladouceur said the meeting was “politically and emotionally charged.”Ferri said, “There wasn’t enough time to go through it and a lot of that [the legislation] wasn’t understood.” Ferri felt much of the intent of the legislation is misunderstood.“It does make sense to slow down,” he said yesterday. “This is really a citywide project [sewers] that we must maintain and we are sensitive to neighbors’ concerns.” Taking a long view, Rep. Shekarchi said, “It’s unfortunate such an important piece of legislation came up so late in the session.” He said there is not enough time remaining in the current session to fully vet the bill.
If re-elected this fall, he said he would like to see the bill return in January so that it can be given a hearing. And he observed, legislators have the power to amend the legislation. Shekarchi also questioned whether the City Council could achieve what the legislation seeks to do through ordinances.