Skeptical Crowd Turns Out to Discuss Sewer Financing
By: Christopher Kazarian
Nearly 75 people showed up to the Morse Pond School last night, enduring sweltering heat inside the auditorium to question a proposal for how the town will fund the first two phases of the tentative project to sewer 8,100 homes south of Route 28 from Little Pond east to Waquoit Bay.
While many said the project, which will clean up six estuaries facing Nantucket Sound, was worthwhile, some were ambivalent about the proposed financial model suggested by former Falmouth town administrator Peter F. Boyer. Others suggested the cost will be too much to bear for taxpayers.
The proposed cost of the first two phases, just over $400 million, is a staggering sum for a town whose largest public works project to this point has been the $86 million Falmouth High School project, said Virginia Valiela, chairman of the committee reviewing the draft plan for reducing the nitrogen load from septic systems into these six estuaries on the sound.
Mr. Boyer, a member of the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan Review Committee, took the reins at last night’s public forum which focused on financing the first two phases, noting that the third and last phase will not begin for at least 30 to 40 years.
He stressed that his proposal was not necessarily the view of the committee, but an exercise to determine how the town could both afford the costs of this project and pass muster politically.
He noted that the issue could divide the town, particularly the fact that one-third of the homes, or roughly 8,100 residences, would be treated during the first two phases. That would mean the remaining two-thirds of the homeowners would have to be persuaded they should fund such a project.
Under Mr. Boyer’s plan there were several logistical items that needed to occur to ensure the formula could be affordable by residents. Among the suppositions he made was that the town needs to receive $100 million in funding through the State Revolving Fund (SRF) program, which provides zero interest loans to qualifying communities under a competitive application process.
Former town administrator Peter Boyer highlighted several options for financing a sewer system for homes south of Route 28:
- The total cost of sewering Falmouth is estimated to cost $650 million. The first two phases are estimated at $400 million.
- To finance the plan, a high estimate of a $30,000 betterment per home would mean homeowners have to pay $1,058 per year. All taxpayers would see an increase of $192 in property taxes.
- A mid-range betterment of $20,000 per home would cost homeowners $705 per year. Taxpayers would pay an additional $239 in property taxes.
- A $10,000 betterment would result in a $353 annual fee for homeowners. Property taxes would increase 10.2 percent throughout the town, adding $286 to property tax bills.
- If no betterment is charged, property taxes would increase by 11.9 percent to an additional $333 per person.
Mr. Boyer also suggested that the town should petition the state Legislature seeking approval to extend the length of betterments charged to 50 years and lower the interest rate from 5 percent to 2.5 percent. His proposal provided fixed payments over the life of the betterment term, much like a mortgage, so that initial payments pay higher interest and later payments pay higher principal balance.
Some in attendance, including Joseph D. Apicella of Edgewater Drive East, Seacoast Shores, questioned such an approach. He said it was unwise to pit one-third of the residents versus two-thirds, stressing that the argument about who benefits the most, and by how much, from this project would ultimately defeat it.
He said the entire town has to pay and the cost should be borne through property taxes.
“I think the issue is being framed wrong,” he said. “What is causing the nitrogen loading? It is everybody. If you have a septic system, you are the problem.”
He was one of many who preferred funding the project through property taxes although Mr. Boyer’s proposal called for a mixture of betterments and property taxes.
Laurence W. Marsh of Oak Ridge Road, Teaticket, was one of the first to question that approach, stressing that a $600 million project—representing six times the town’s current annual operating budget—will need the entire community’s support.
Betterments, he said, do not achieve that because they “are like fees. They are not deductible as taxes.”
But if the project were funded through property taxes, he said that amount is deductible. He estimated that roughly $200 million in taxes could be deducted by Falmouth residents, if the town went such a route.
He said betterments would be much more imposing a cost to bear for the average resident.
Mr. Apicella agreed, calling the proposed betterments “the most regressive thing I’ve ever seen.” He said there are many residents in Seacoast Shores with a $200,000 mortgage who cannot afford to pay an additional $1,250 a year in betterments and property taxes.
He said that amount is much more onerous, as a percentage of a homeowner’s income, as opposed to paying no betterment and $333 in property taxes.
Alison S. Leschen of Lantern Lane, Falmouth, called on all residents to bear the costs of the project because “we should all participate in the solution.”
The town’s economy, she said, is based on tourism, much of which is related to water quality. If that is impacted, she said, the effect will be felt townwide.
Some such as Matthew J. McNamara of Childs River Road, Waquoit, warned that the town is in a dilemma, faced with a problem to clean up its estuaries while dealing with major financial difficulties. This past May, he pointed out, residents shot down a capital exclusion and a debt exclusion at the ballot that paled in cost to what was being discussed last night.
Wastewater issues, he said, will be competing with schools, municipal trash, and water for dollars.
Childs River Road, Waquoit
Following last month’s boil water order imposed in town, Linda W. Robbins of Cachalot Lane, West Falmouth, said she preferred that the town focus on its drinking water issues, paying for a capital project to filter the town’s main water source, Long Pond, before attempting to tackle the town’s wastewater problems.
John L. Sullivan of Sandwich Road, East Falmouth, raised concerns about residents in the proposed treatment area whose homes would be sewered last. If their septic systems fail and they are forced to replace them, he asked about them having to bear those additional costs.
“Unless you believe you can wait 30 or 40 years without repairing your septic system, you would need to replace it,” Mr. Boyer said.
Ms. Valiela said there are programs in place both at the county and local level that would assist homeowners with making repairs to their septic systems if necessary.
Of all to voice their opinions, perhaps the most critical was Ronald J. Smolowitz of Hatchville Road, owner of Coonamessett Farm, who warned that “Town Meeting is not going to vote for this money. There is very little support for this.” He noted that many residents believe the proposed costs will be far in excess of the $400 million Mr. Boyer estimated for the first two phases.
He argued that the town has only looked at this issue from a civil engineering perspective, but has yet to consider other views. As an example, he said, oysters could be one way to reduce nitrogen, suggesting that it would take only 88 of the creatures to clean up the Coonamessett River.
He said the town needs to closely look at such alternatives. “I think we are jumping in way too fast by adopting a civil engineering solution and expanding the payments to 50 years. It is a lot like a Ponzi scheme.”
“I don’t believe it is a Ponzi scheme,” Mr. Boyer responded. “It is one way of dealing with this.”
He said his board will need to wrestle with how to best deal with the nitrogen loading into the estuaries and how a solution can be funded, making recommendations to selectmen before Town Meeting and ultimately having voters weigh in on the idea.
Committee member Stephen D. Rafferty said his board has been open-minded since it was formed, looking at alternative approaches to sewering and tasking its consultant, Stearns & Wheler, to study other options.
“We are very aware and sensitive to the fact that there have been other projects in town that started out at a certain price and ended at another,” he said. “We want to make sure the prices we are getting are real prices, and we won’t be surprised later on.”