Ballot questions spark battle between parties and interested groups

Political voices are chiming in on a dozen ballot questions facing Ridgefield — the $48-million sewer plant expansion, nine town charter changes, and two state constitutional amendments.

The Republican Town Committee is opposed to five of them — the sewer plant renovation, three charter questions, and one state constitutional amendment — and has been giving out “vote no” lawn signs.

The Democratic Town Committee supports voting “yes” on all 12 ballot questions.

The Water Pollution Control Authority, which oversees the sewer system, supports upgrading its treatment plant.

Ridgefield’s Conservation Commission took a stand in support of one constitutional amendment.

And Charter Revision Commission Chairman Jonathan Seem urged support of the charter revisions nearly a year in the making.

“I don’t consider any of the questions to be partisan issues,” Seem said, “rather, opportunities for informed voters from all parties to participate in making good government decisions by voting  ‘yes’ to ballot questions number 3 through number 11.”

(Note: A story explaining the charter questions ran in The Press last week and is available by clicking here.)

The Charter Revision Commission’s entire final report is available on the town website ridgefieldct.org by clicking on the “government” button near the top, then “view all boards and committees” and selecting Charter Revision Commission from the drop-down menu.

The charter commission’s report may also be reached with the link: ridgefieldct.org/charter-revision-commission.

The Democratic committee announced its position in a release Monday night.

“After careful review and deliberation, the Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee (DTC) voted to support approval of all 12 questions on the 2018 ballot and encourages voters to answer “yes” to each question. DTC Chair Alex Harris said, “The DTC believes each initiative advances the cause of good government, increasing transparency, accountability, fiscal responsibility, efficiency and effectiveness.”

The Democrats released a “Ridgefield DTC Guide to 2018 Ballot Questions” on their website ridgefielddems.net. Each question appears as on the ballot, followed by a “plain language explanation” and “reasons for supporting.”

Sewer question

The $48-million sewer plant renovation is labeled “WPCA referendum” at the end of Tuesday’s ballot.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said renovating the plant, last upgraded 28 years ago, is something the town must do, under orders from state environmental authorities. He said voting “yes” should reduce the $48 million cost with $11.5 million in state grants — the town’s in line for grants now, but will probably lose its claim on a share of limited grant money if it delays the project.

“It’s a question of our infrastructure,” Marconi said of the sewer upgrade. “In the past, the people of Ridgefield have been supportive of any infrastructure improvements we need to make.

“In this case, a lot of the requirements are mandated. And as one person put it at the public hearing: We have an opportunity to purchase something on sale. If we don’t buy it now, we’ll have to buy it in the future, when it is not on sale.”

Republican Town Committee treasurer Bob Cascella said GOP leadership is skeptical of the $48-million project.

“There’s a lot of reasons people are against it,” he said.

“Number one is how it’s potentially going to be paid for. There’s a lot of people who do not live in the sewer district who do not want to pay for the sewers. They pay for their septic to be pumped. If my septic fails, I have to repair it, or replace it.”

The project would consolidate two sewer plants into one, closing the town’s Route 7 sewer plant and pumping that effluent for treatment at the South Street plant, upgraded to process the 120,000 gallons a day the two plants currently clean — with no additional capacity.

Everybody understands a sewer plant has a certain life, how long it’s going to last, and it needs to be upgraded,” Cascella said. “There’s concern that basically the design does not allow for any future growth in the community…

“There’s a lot of questions around: Why are we closing the plant on 7 and 35, and digging up three-plus miles of road?” he said.

“There’s a lot of folks who feel this hasn’t been in front of the town. If you go back and look at the last year of Board of Selectmen minutes, see how many times the Board of Selectmen has talked about the sewers and go to Board of Finance minutes and see how often they’ve discussed it — it hasn’t really been out there. And it’s a big number, and it raises an eyebrow.”

The $48 million cost would be shared: $11.5 million by grants; $8 million paid from general town taxes; and the remaining $28.5 million covered by sewer users.

For a single residence, Marconi said, annual sewer use fees would rise from today’s $470 to $914 over 10 years — and continue, with potential adjustments for other capital needs, for the remaining 10 years of bond repayment.

The cost for most taxpayers — people off the sewer lines, with septic systems — will be less, covering only the $8 million repaid from general taxes.

Bottom line, average property taxes in Ridgefield are $13,000 a year. To that person, it will cost $48 a year, for 20 years,” Marconi said.

“If you were to add at the end of 20 years what the non-user pays, it would be 20 times 48 — $960,” Marconi said.

“So, the non-sewer users whose major complaint is ‘We don’t use the sewer plant so why should we pay?’ — number one, when their system is pumped they do use the sewer plant,” he said.

They also benefit from the town center made possible by the sewers and treatment plant.

“Our schools, our churches, synagogue, library, restaurants, stores — although they pay their fair share, those are facilities we all use. And sharing that use, hence the reason for the small share of the total cost,” Marconi said.

“It’s been mostly political opposition,” he added.

“Sewer users finance the bulk of the project,” said Water Pollution Control Authority Chairwoman Amy Siebert.

“Ridgefield sewer use fees are low, and when adjusted to finance the upgrade will be in line with many US municipalities in New England and across the country that have also had to upgrade their facilities,” she said.

“We’d like to emphasize the upgrade is not optional — the plants are old, equipment has reached or exceeded its service life, and the regulations/permit for the new facilities dictates this must be done.”

She added, “When one thinks about what one gets with a good wastewater treatment system — the ability to flush and forget about it, environmental benefits, control of waterborne disease, among other things — this infrastructure is pretty amazing and worth it.”

GOP charter stand

The Republican Town Committee (RTC) was skeptical of some among nine charter changes proposed by the Charter Revision Commission and Board of Selectmen.

“There really were three of the charter questions that a majority of the RTC felt they wanted to oppose,” Cascella said. “Two of them have to do with the same thing. The treasurer and tax collector who are now elected positions. The Charter Revision Commission and selectmen wanted to make them appointed,” Cascella said.

“There’s no reason they should make them appointed, they should stay elected.”

Those two changes — questions five and six on Tuesday’s ballot — were proposed and rejected by voters in the 2014 charter revision.

“Our position four years ago was that this was a bad idea,” Cascella said.

“If you recall, four years ago an overwhelming number of townspeople said ‘no’ … Why is this back on the ballot? So, we are opposing those two questions.”

The GOP also opposes the charter change proposed in ballot Question 8. This says that the Annual Town Meeting may amend budget proposals going to voters at a referendum — reducing the selectmen’s budget by line items, or the total of the Board of Education’s budget — but only if at the start of the meeting, it is attended by “2% of qualified voters” which would be about 360 with today’s roughly 18,000 voters.

“The third charter question had to do with the percentage of voters that had to be present at the Annual Town Meeting to change the amount of the budget,” Cascella said.

“Our position is: When you vote, your vote should count. If there’s only 20 people who decide to go to the Town Meeting, their votes should count. If 2,000 go, their votes should count.”

Constitutional questions

Two amendments to the state constitution are ballots Questions 1 and 2.

Question 1 is designed to create a constitutional “lockbox” for the money in the state’s Special Transportation Fund — money from fuel taxes, transportation-related fees, motor vehicle fines and some state sales and use taxes — so the money could be used only for “highway and public transportation projects,” operating the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Transportation, and paying off transportation-related debt.

This is supported by Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee, and opposed by the Republican Town Committee.

The second state question would amend the state constitution to set up a more rigorous procedure for the state to sell or otherwise transfer state land or buildings. It would require a public hearing and a separate act of the legislature to sell state real estate. If properties are controlled by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or the Department of Agriculture — as are most state parks — their sale or transfer would require two-thirds majorities of both houses of the state legislature.

The amendment is supported by Ridgefield’s Conservation Commission and Democratic Town Committee. The Republican Town Committee has no official position on it.

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