$48-million sewer plant gets hearing on Saturday

With costs projected at $48 million, the town’s sewer plant renovations may interest taxpayers as well as sewer users, and a public hearing on the plans is scheduled for this Saturday morning, Sept 22, at 10 in the lower level conference room in town hall.

The town is anticipating $11.5 million in grants to support the project so the local cost is projected to be about $37.5 million— but to qualify for the grants, the project needs to be designed, put out to bid, and a contract awarded by July 2019.

As a practical matter, that means voters have to approve the sewer project question that will appear on this November’s election ballot. With this in mind, Marconi said he may schedule further hearings on the sewer plant project in October.

The costs would be “bonded through the State of Connecticut Clean Water Fund at a 2% rate of interest,” Marconi said.

Among the major issues facing the town Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) is the question of how the $37.5-million projected local cost would be shared among different interest groups.

“There’ll be an outline of that,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said, looking ahead to Saturday’s hearing,“although we don’t have our final report back from our rate consultant.”

To study ways the costs could be shared, the town has hired Raftelis Financial Consultants — a firm that specializes in just this sort of question.

Sewer users who are on the sewer line get a benefit from the treatment plant, and they pay sewer use fees — which would be going up.

Homeowners outside the two sewer districts, and off the sewer lines, are indirect users of the plant when their septic systems are pumped out periodically and the septic pumper then brings his truck to the plant to disgorge the waste for treatment at the plant. They pay indirectly through dumping fees being passed along in the cost charged by pumpers — and those fefes are likely to go up.

All homeowners benefit, in theory, from having a sewer system and plant that allows the town to have a densely developed downtown with shops and offices and condominiums — allowing residents a wide-ranging suburban lifestyle, and also paying a hefty share of the tax burden.

A town contribution of $8 million toward the total cost of the sewer project has been in the town’s five-year capital improvement plan for a few years now, Marconi said.

This would be borrowed in the bond market, and paid back out of the town’s general fund and taxes — paid by sewer users and septic system owners alike — putting upward pressure on the mill rate that goes to voters each May.

That $8 million town contribution would lower the total cost to be carried by sewer users from $37.5 million to $29.5 million.

“So, the remainder is $29.5 million, that would be passed up by the ratepayers, over 20 years, at 2%,” Marconi said.

“The ratepayers, if approved, would see sewer use fees gradually increase over several years.”

Sewer use fees are currently $440 a year for a single family residence.

“It could, when it finally reaches its maximum, come close a doubling of the current fees — $880 a year, or $800 a year,” Marconi said.

The hook-up fees for a new house in the sewer district to get on the sewer lines would be another area for potential increases. A new hook-up is currently a one-time fee of $5,700.
Decisions on exactly how project costs will be allotted have been made yet.

“The WPCA has not voted on the distribution, or the rates,” Marconi said.

But the options being considered and factors being weighed will be up for discussion at Saturday’s public hearing.

Tougher standards

Something that doesn’t need much debate, according to Marconi, is the need for the project.

Sewer plants are supposed to be renovated every 20 years. They operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has raised its treatment standards for nitrogen and phosphorous, and has been gently pushing the town to get going on the project for some years.

Ridgefield has two sewer plants, and two sewer districts, and this project is being designed to improve treatment in both of them, to meet new standards, by combining the two.

The District 1 sewage treatment on South Street, which serves the village area, would be rebuilt to meet today’s tougher standards on nitrogen and phosphorous removal.

The plan is to close the District 2 treatment plant serving the area around the intersection of Routes 7 and 35. A pipeline and pumping station would be built to get District 2 wastewater to South Street for treatment at the District I village sewer plant, newly renovated to meet the state’s toughened standards.

This would avoid the need for an upgrade at Route 7 plant. Even with added construction costs the pipeline is expected to save money in the long run, Marconi said, because making the Route 7 plant meet the state’s new standards would mean adding staff there — currently it isn’t staffed, most of the time. That would carry a substantial increase in operating costs.

No new capacity

An issue that came up when the Board of Selectmen discussed the sewer project in mid August, was that the plan doesn’t envision increasing the capacity of the plant.

The existing South Street plant has a treatment capacity of one million gallons per day, and the Route 7 plant has a capacity of 120,000 gallons per day.

The upgraded South Street plant would have a capacity of 1,120,000 gallons per day — replacement capacity for the two plants combined, but no more than that.

Selectman Bob Hebert questioned the wisdom of this. Marconi said that decision reflected widespread sentiment among townspeople that they didn’t want to increase sewer plant capacity, viewing it as an invitation to more and denser development.

At the time the project was in its early planning stages, townspeople had been frustrated by a series of affordable housing projects under the state 8-30g law, which allows developers of projects that have 30% of their units affordable to circumvent most zoning rules.

Many townspeople, at that time, regarded an increase in sewer plant capacity would be taken advantage of by developers pushing more and more affordable projects. The town obtained a five-year moratorium against 8-30g project, but the five years ends in early in October, and the applications have already started coming in.