Portsmouth hammers wastewater plan
|Citizens carry signs at wastewater hearing|
More than 250 residents packed the Portsmouth Middle School auditorium this evening for a public hearing on the draft wastewater facilities plan prepared by Woodard & Curran, and based on the 20 citizens who spoke and the response in the room, public sentiment against the proposal was overwhelming.
There was a brief review of the $170M draft plan proposal for two sewage treatment plants on the West and North side (available on the Town's Wastewater page) then the rest of the 2.5 hour meeting was turned over to public comment.
"What happens if you don't pass the bond issue," Island Park resident Bob Drake wanted to know, saying that he felt like Island Park would then be a "target."
Island Park resident Gary Gump suggested that the Council let the matter go to the citizens for a vote. He noted that there were some lots that would be difficult for septic systems and said that personally, he would "like to have a sewer system." This drew loud boos from the crowd, prompting Council President Pete McIntyre to say, "Would you do that in your own living room if you had a guest?"
Portsmouth Concerned Citizens (PCC) President Larry Fitzmorris called it "the most unrealistic project I've seen in the history of this town," and that his estimate, including financing, was $230M, which he said was "brutally expensive."
This reporter, for possibly the first time in public, agreed with Mr. Fitzmorris about the cost. But I added that even the proposed Wastewater Management District (WWMD) would be very expensive for people on fixed incomes, since it would require $25K outlays for replacing septic systems. I suggested that the Council consider tax relief for residents of Island Park who were replacing their systems since we would be, in effect, contributing to the public good of clean water and the Town should offset that expense on our taxes.
Former Town Councilor Len Katzman asked "What does it mean to be too expensive," and cited a handbook used by the Federal EPA in evaluating projects, which uses the figure of 2% of median household income as the threshold, beyond which the price is an "unreasonable financial burden." Given Newport County's median income of $68K (which, Katzman said, the North End of Portsmouth probably does not approach) that would put the limit of acceptable yearly cost at $1,375. Given those numbers, said Katzman, "You don't have to guess, is this too much or not too much — this is too much."
Kathy Melvin argued that the PCC's cadre of "volunteer scientists" (Ed. Note: I need to remember that term the next time one of these folks tells me there are no citizen journalists) had not seen evidence of pollution, and slammed the proposal as a giveaway to developers. Portsmouth, she said, should not be "an economic development zone for developers with the taxpayers footing the bill."
Former Councilor Bill West asked the Council to be sure they knew what would happen to the townspeople if the proposal did not pass. "What will the DEM (Department of Environmental Management) do if we reject?" said West, "What are the ramifications?"
There were also questions about the feasibility of the projected development required to get the finances to work, based on Aquidneck Island's limited supply of water. And one person raised my favorite solution: hand the whole thing over to the Portsmouth Water and Fire District, since they already have expertise in piping and digging up streets, and they are a completely separate financial entity.
The Council took no formal action this evening, since this was advertised as a hearing, but placed the item on the agenda for their first meeting in January. There was a brief procedural scuffle when Tailgunner Gleason tried to move it up to the December 14 meeting "So that these people can have a good Christmas," but that was nixed by the reality that Woodard and Curran could not return the final proposal with the public comments integrated in that timeframe.
After the meeting, one of the people involved in the process gave me a link to a recent New York Times story on Newport's sewer problems, which is worth taking a look at. While it's not on point — it focusses on the issues of legacy systems combining stormwater and wastewater — it is an acute reminder that this is an Island-wide issue.
As a resident of Island Park, and someone who will be affected personally by any decision, my goal has always been to ensure clean water for our Town and the next generation. I really wish that the numbers had been there for some type of common system that would have solved the specific issues for Island Park residents, since we are going to lose large portions of our property and personally have to pay significant upgrade costs for advanced septic systems. My house is valued at $180K, so a $25K septic system is a significant fraction of the cost. There are a lot of folks here in the Park in similar situations.
If sewers are not politically possible, then we need to find the next best solution and implement it in a way that minimizes negative consequences, and that looks like it would be a WWMD. What I do not want to have happen is what many of the anti-sewer folks used as an argument against sewers: people on fixed incomes will be priced out of their homes.
That's why I'm urging the Council to consider tax relief for Island Park and Portsmouth Park residents who are required under the WWMD to replace their septic systems. Since we are contributing to the public good of clean water, we should see a reduction in our taxes. My back-of-envelope calculation is that in a worst-case year, this would likely cost the town $600K in foregone taxes from IP/PP, which would mean spreading this around the rest of the town. The average $300K house would see a total increase of $50 in their yearly taxes.
Is fifty bucks a year too much for the town to have clean water and keep people in their homes?