Rethinking sewer assessments: panel works on enabling legislation
Ed Ladouceur, the Ward 5 councilman who has pushed for $56 million to extend sewers and make upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, has changed his thinking on sewer assessments.
Until a recent meeting of the Council Sewer Review Commission that he chairs, Ladouceur favored replacing the exiting system of basing the assessment on linear footage with a unit assessment. He viewed this as fair since, regardless of a homeownerâ€™s lot size, a single owner was being served.
That was until he listened to the testimony of Maggie Murphy, who lives in the Highland Beach neighborhood. Her home is on a 50 by 80-foot lot and has a cesspool. Building a septic system on such a small lot would be difficult and costly; she could use sewers. Her neighborhood is part of the Bayside project included in $33 million in bonding for expanded sewers. Based on all the properties that would gain access to sewers, the unit cost would be $22,000, although that canâ€™t be accurately determined until construction costs of all the projects have been tallied.
The estimated assessment costs being used by the commission range from $15,000 to $30,000. But $22,000 is too much for Murphy even with the payments spread over 30 years, as Ladouceur is hopeful of implementing. Presently, assessment payments are spread over 20 years.
Murphyâ€™s argument was that she would be paying more than $400 a foot for the 50 feet of pipe in front of her house.
After Murphy reasoned the linear method of assessment would be fairer, Ladouceur said he drove through the neighborhood. He found many small lots. Murphy had a point.
â€śThere has to be a better way,â€ť Ladouceur said he thought.
He has trouble with a system based solely on linear footage where some property owners pay more than others for the same basic service.
Ladouceur said the commission is looking at a formula that considers footage plus a minimum and maximum assessment. However that plan works out it will be part of an enabling legislation package Ladouceur aims to bring before the City Council next month.
â€śWeâ€™re real close to the point where we make a decision,â€ť he said Tuesday.
The commission wrestled with finalizing enabling legislation yesterday, addressing, among other issues, how long homeowners capable of connecting to sewers should be permitted to continuing using septic systems and whether those not using the system should contribute to its operational costs.
Public member of the commission Michelle Komar argued many people canâ€™t afford the added expense of connecting to sewers and quarterly usage charges on top of a quarterly assessment.
â€śLet them have time to decide when they can afford to tie in,â€ť she said.
Ladouceur said the useful life of a septic system is 20 to 25 years and that he favors giving people the time to tie in.
â€śNobody is being forced to do anything,â€ť he said.
But Peter Ginaitt, a commission member and member of the Warwick Sewer Authority, reasoned, â€śWe have to take a look at the whole system.â€ť
Speaking of the $250 million the city has invested in the sewer system, he said, â€śItâ€™s the ownership of the entire City of Warwick.â€ť He urged that the system be operated as a business and like schools and other community assets not being used by all residents that non-user fees contribute to maintaining that asset.
The enabling legislation will need council approval for it to gain passage by the General Assembly.
Apart from the issue of assessments and how they will be calculated going forward, Ladouceur is looking for the City Council to have ongoing oversight of the Sewer Authority and for the mayor to maintain a position of advice and consent. Apart from a 30-year assessment payment schedule, he would also like to see assessment payment interest rates not more than 1.25 percent higher than what the authority is paying to borrow the funds.
He also feels that home grinder pumps that are required in areas served by low-pressure systems should be considered as part of the system infrastructure. Presently, the authority provides the pumps, which can cost $2,000 to $2,500, when sewers are brought to a neighborhood. Replacement pumps, however, are the responsibility of the homeowner.
â€śI think this needs to be shared by all customers,â€ť Ladouceur said.
In response to those who have told him they have workable cesspools, Ladouceur makes the same offer.
â€śThere would not be a mandatory tie-in if the cesspool passes,â€ť he said.