Ridgefield sewer increase draws loud crowd

Torches and pitchforks — no, but folks were upset.

What passes for an angry mob in Ridgefield — about 40 people, and a few of them talking loud and long — showed up to tell the Water Pollution Control Authority what they thought about the 60 percent sewer rate increase they’d been hit with.

“You want Ridgefield to be a ghost town?” asked disgruntled sewer user David Coles.

About 40 people attended the meeting Thursday night, Sept. 26, and nine of them spoke — nearly all objecting to the rate increase. The most common theme was a demand to change to a “use-based” rate system in which sewer bills reflect each different property’s water consumption, and so its sewer use.

“This is a public utility. It should be treated like a public utility — it should be fee-based, use-based,” said John West of Abbott Avenue. “...Do it on a fair basis, that everyone is paying a fair amount.”

Ray Goddard spoke for owners in the 61-unit Quail Ridge Condominium Association, saying he also had support from homeowner associations in the 72-unit Quail Ridge II development and the 300-odd unit Casagmo condominiums.

“We don’t want a flat tax,” he said. “It needs to be a use-based tax.”

It was a big crowd for a meeting of the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), but not a big surprise.

“That 60 percent increase is a punch in the gut,” admitted Kevin Briody, a WPCA member who pays the fees since his home is on the sewer system.

WPCA Chairwoman Amy Siebert said the town would study the question of changing to a use-based rate system.

“It’s something we can talk about,” Siebert said. “We do appreciate your comments, and we can look further at that.”

She added that it would not be a simple question. And moving to a system of charging properties for sewer use based on water their use could lead to people paying a wide range of charges — which might make some people happy, but others even more unhappy.

A change to use-based rate system would need considerable study, Siebert said.

“What does that spread actually end up looking like?” she said.

It’s something the WPCA could have to review with the rate consultant it has been using, Siebert said.

“We’ll have to find money for that,” she added.

Not everyone was convinced.

“When you say you’ll look at it,” Roger Restaino of Prospect Ridge asked, “is that just a brush off?”

The 60 percent rate hike pushed a single-family home’s cost up $280 a year, from $470 to $750.

Multifamily and some commercial users pay even more. Restaurants can have several of the $750 sewer use units assigned to them, based on the amount of floor are they devote to seating.

One speaker said they’d heard “from one restaurant in town, whose sewer fee went from $7,000 to $14,000.”

Moccia’s moment

Dick Moccia, a finance board member who is the Republican candidate for first selectman, spoke against the steep increase at some length

A former mayor of Norwalk, Moccia said he’d overseen a $65 million sewer plant project there.

Going to a use-based system wouldn’t be all that hard, he said.

“If larger cities — Norwalk, Danbury — can do it, we can,” he said.

Moccia read from a copy of a page in the town’s permit from the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, allowing it to legally operate the plant. He drew attention to a particular sentence:

“The permittee shall maintain a system of user charges based on actual use sufficient to operate and maintain the collections system and replace critical components.”

Moccia wondered if the town’s current system — with charges based on a $750 unit for any single-family home, with commercial and multifamily users paying more — met the state permit’s demand for “a system of user charges based on actual use.”

Siebert noted that the across the state of Connecticut different towns had a variety of systems for assessing sewer use charges — all approved by the state.

Moccia vowed to keep looking into the question.

“I’m going to the state to find out if they’re violating their permit,” Moccia told The Press.

Unhappy campers

The dominant sentiment of speakers was unhappiness with the 60 percent rate hike.

“How did you guys ever come up with the $750?” said Joe Savino, a Police Commission member and Republican candidate for the Board of Selectmen. “...There’s no transparency!”

Savino also pressed WPCA members on whether the town would indeed get the $11 million in grants that town officials have been saying would help with the cost of the $48 million plant renovation.

People have been moving out due to the high cost of living in Ridgefield, said Coles, and the 60 percent sewer rate increase is just making it harder for people to live here.

“You want people to stay in this town. You want people to live here,” said Coles, a New Street resident. “…How do we make this affordable for people to stay in this town?”

Steve Jensen of Prospect Ridge agreed.

“I don’t know if we can afford to be here,” he said.

Janet Maddox, who moved to Ridgefield from Westchester County, put the rate hike in the context of all the other tax increases hitting Connecticut residents.

“We are paying way too many taxes,” she said.”Now, there’s a menu tax!”

In the scheme the town is using, the cost to sewer users has been held down some by having the town’s general taxpayers kick in $8 million toward the sewer renovation project’s $48 million cost.

A Limestone Road resident objected to having to pay a share of that, since his home is on a well and septic system — which he’d just paid $5,000 to repair.

Siebert said everyone in town shares some benefits from the sewer plant, since it allows RIdgefiled to have a town center with stores, shopping centers, schools, a library.

A few people seemed to support the WPCA — not in statements to the meeting, but in some of the back-and-forth, which was at times was between audience members.

One woman, for instance, defended Seibert’s explanation of why it’s fair for the town government to cover $8 million of the project’s $48 million cost out of general taxes, saying she lived on Great Hill Road and had a septic system, but was happy to pay higher taxes to support have the downtown.

No choice

First Selectman Rudy Marconi, who is a nonvoting ex-officio member of the WPCA, told the crowd that the town had no choice but push ahead with the $48 million sewer upgrade project — which is required by the state to meet toughened environmental standards.

“If we didn’t,” Marconi said, “we’d go to court, we’d be fined, and we’d be doing it without any grants.”

He also said he’d explored with the state the idea of extending the payback length of the $48 million loan for the project going from a 20-year to a 25-year or 30-year amortization schedule.

“I’m told state statute does not allow it,” Marconi said.

The town would have to remain on 20-year loan in order to remain eligible for a 2 percent loan from the “clean water” fund.

“It’s going back and redoing everything, jeopardizing all the grant money and all the deadlines,” Marconi said.

Coles also wondered why the WPCA hadn’t planned ahead for a renovation project that was clearly predictable, and built up some money to cover the costs.

“This has been known for 30 years this is going to have to be done,” he said.

WPCA member Kevin Briody responded that, as a member of the authority who was on a sewer system himself, he’d been a voice for holding rates as low as possible.

8-30 builders

Coles also asked why “the people who are building all these 8-30g’s” weren’t being made to pay more, through increased hook-up fees.

“The hook-up fee in this town is $5,700 a unit,” Siebert said.

A building with 10 apartments, she added, would be charged 10 times that hookup fee — $57,000.

The meeting’s real focus wasn’t the hookup fees, but the use charges that had risen 60 percent to $750 a year for a single-family residence — without being tied to how much water a home actually uses.

“The cost is whatever it is — that’s fine,” John West said of the $48 million plant renovation project. “It’s how you’re dividing up that cost that really bothers us.”

Savino, a selectman candidate, had spoken at length against the increase, but he also tipped his hat to WPCA members.

“Thank you guys for your service to the town,” he said. “This is really tough stuff. I applaud you all for volunteering.”