With a projected cost near $42 million, the town’s planned sewer plant renovation is expected to hit sewer users with higher fees. Looks like it could about double them.

“For the average homeowner, that is allocated one sewer unit, this could result in an approximate doubling of the cost of that single sewer unit, which is approximately $440 per year,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told The Press.

Local costs are estimated at about $32 million — assuming the town gets the $10 million in state and federal grants it’s looking for — and the town has hired a consulting firm to study how paying off bonds for that amount might be shared among various constituent groups.

“We have hired a consultant to do a rate study of our community, of our sewer service areas, and to develop a model for rate increase implementation,” Marconi said.

Marconi discussed the costs with The Press after talking about the potential doubling of fees at a late November finance board meeting.

The most significant dividing line is between users who are hooked up to the sewers, and general taxpayers who have septic systems that are pumped every now and then, with the pumping firm’s truck then delivering its contents to the plant for treatment.

But there are also commercial users and taxpayers that might figure in differently.

The project aims to close the District II sewer plant that serves the area around the Route 7 and Route 35 intersection, and pump that effluent to the renovated District I plant off South Street for treatment. So that’s another user group that might potentially be regarded differently in devising cost-sharing options.

History

The District I sewer plant off South Street was last upgraded in 1990-92, although parts of the village sewer system date to the early 1900s. The last District I plant renovation cost about $13 million.

The previous upgrade of the village sewer system involved all town property owners sharing in a portion of the cost through general taxes — although properties on the sewer system, which clearly get more benefit, carried a good portion of the cost by themselves, through increased hook-up and sewer use fees.

When the District II sewer system at routes 7 and 35 was created — adapting a treatment plant that was originally built for the private Benrus manufacturing facility — the bulk of the cost was put on the users.

Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) Chairwoman Amy Siebert has offered two arguments for distributing a share of the cost onto all taxpayers. One argument is that the sewer plant accepts and treats the waste generated when properties off the sewer lines have their septic tanks pumped, so the plant serves all property owners. Another is that the sewer system provides an indirect benefit to everyone in town by allowing a more densely developed area, with commercial and multifamily buildings that create a town center and also pay a lot of taxes.

Timeline

The WPCA has been working on plans for a plant improvement project for a couple of years, and hopes to have construction start in 2019. Initial timelines called for a referendum vote on the project in the fall of 2018, with designs completed and the contract awarded by July 2019 — a deadline Marconi says must be met for the project to qualify for the $10 million in grants town officials hope will reduce the local cost.

“Under law, we are required to upgrade every 20 years, so obviously, we’re behind,” Marconi said.

“Our current timeline agreement, that allows us to qualify for grants, will require a shovel in the ground in the latter half of 2019. And in order to meet that timeline, all of the engineering, construction documents and bid process will need to have taken place before that July 2019 deadline. So time is of the essence.”

Capacity remains

Under the plan, the District I sewer plant would be renovated to handle its current capacity of 1 million gallons a day, plus the full 120,000-gallons-a-day capacity of the District II treatment plant. The combined 1,120,000 gallons-per-day capacity of the two plants would not be increased under the plans.

The project would also upgrade treatment capability at the plant so it meets stricter state environmental standards for the treatment of both nitrogen and phosphorous. And it would replace aging treatment facilities that have been used ceaselessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than 20 years. The plant will continue to be used for treatment of septic system waste from Ridgefield properties, delivered by commercial septic pumping services after they pump tanks in town.

Borrowing in the bond market can raise the needed money, but how the bonds are to be repaid over 20 or 30 years will need to be figured out.  

“One part of this is to formulate how the project is to be paid for. And that’s what the consultant will study,” Marconi said.

The consultant will eventually make a recommendation to the Water Pollution Control Authority.

“It is is anticipated that, if we meet the current timeline, Ridgefield will qualify for approximately $10 million in grants. The balance of the project would be bonded, and require a town meeting vote — actually, a referendum vote, since it’s over $3 million.”

But a lot of math homework will have to be done before a proposal is ready for that referendum, which town officials hope to have in the fall 2018.