PROVIDENCE — With the General Assembly’s approval of the latest in a series of bills targeting Coventry’s troubled sewer program, Coventry homeowners facing sewer assessments will now be given the option to pay them in installments over a 30-year period.
Sponsored by Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) and Rep. Patricia Serpa (D-Dist. 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick), the legislation passed last week is the final piece in a three-bill package aimed at giving relief to Coventry residents affected by the town’s sewer program.
This latest bill will let residents pay off their assessments, previously required to be paid over 20 years, “in a reasonable and timely manner,” Serpa said.
“These costs are significant to individuals, especially those living on fixed incomes, and this bill treats Coventry’s residents fairly while continuing the sewer program work,” she said.
The legislation should ease the anxiety of those who’ve been hit with “absolute sticker shock” over assessment costs, Raptakis added, by establishing a “sensible and rational payment schedule so that the sewer work may continue without financially devastating Coventry’s residents.”
Homeowners on Arnold Road and Hazard Street were outraged to learn in 2017 that they could be charged assessments of well above $20,000 on sewers being installed on their streets; at the request of local members of the General Assembly, the state auditor general began an investigation into the town's controversial sewer program.
Auditor General Dennis Hoyle released a report in March of 2019 that included a list of 18 recommendations for the program, and work has since been underway to fix the problems that have plagued it.
Without the efforts of the Coventry delegation — and Raptakis and Serpa, in particular — District 3 Town Councilor James LeBlanc said Friday that residents forced to connect to the sewer system would be on the hook for paying thousands of dollars more on assessments.
Raptakis estimated that the three bills together will save the average ratepayer at least $8,000 — bringing the overall cost down to approximately that of a septic system.
“That’s a huge amount of money,” Raptakis said of the anticipated savings, thanking LeBlanc for his input into crafting the bills.
A longtime critic of Coventry’s sewer program, LeBlanc has been working with legislators for the last five years on solutions to the massive assessments facing many residents of his district.
Under the latest legislation, the town must provide for sewer assessments to be paid in as many as 30 annual installments, in accordance with the terms of the loan secured for sewer construction.
In the case of installment payments, interest rates cannot exceed a rate of 1.25 percent above the average interest rate the town is charged on loans used to fund sewer construction.
Annual installment payments may be paid on a quarterly basis, according to the bill, and delinquent interest shall be applied to the account if an annual installment payment isn't received in full within a year.
Allowing assessments to be paid over a longer period will help residents saddled with assessments by reducing the amount owed monthly, LeBlanc pointed out. The 30-year timetable will also allow many homeowners to tie the new cost into their mortgage payments, Raptakis added.
The two previous bills sponsored by Serpa and Raptakis addressed Hoyle’s recommendations regarding what can be included in sewer construction costs, and the interest that can be charged to ratepayers.
Responding to Hoyle's suggestion that the town “reduce the interest rate charged on sewer assessments to approximate the town’s actual costs to borrow,” legislation approved in 2019 cut the interest the town can charge from its previous rate of 6 percent to approximately 3.5, or .5 percent above the interest paid by the town on its borrowed sewer-related funds.
Then in 2021, the General Assembly approved legislation that eliminated from assessments the cost of street paving related to sewer work.
While local members of the General Assembly have fought to protect Coventry’s sewer rate payers, LeBlanc and councilor Hillary Lima, who both sit on the town’s sewer subcommittee, have also striven to keep sewer reform a top priority for the council.
For Lima, the anticipation of a high sewer assessment on her own home is what inspired her to begin paying close attention to local government, in the first place.
“This legislation in particular was imperative and could not wait in our current economic climate to ease the burden on future properties that may see sewer infrastructure run by their home and the assessments that come with that,” she said of the legislation approved last week. “This is just one small step forward in protecting taxpayers and ensuring a fair and equitable stake in future wastewater infrastructure planning in Coventry.”
Still, there remains "a significant amount of reform necessary to protect homeowners from this costly sewer program,” said LeBlanc, who added that before legislation was passed forcing it to do so, the previous town council had seemed uninterested in making changes to the sewer ordinance.
The sewer subcommittee last year proposed several revisions to the town’s sewer ordinance that have since been passed onto the council for review and action but have yet to be addressed, Lima said.
Among those changes is one that would cap what the town can charge for assessments, and another that would require that notice be given well in advance to homeowners living in areas where sewer projects may be initiated — that way, LeBlanc said, residents could have plenty of time to voice their thoughts on the projects.
Each of those changes was included as a recommendation in Hoyle's report.
In the meantime, LeBlanc said he'll keep working to improve the sewer program that has been the cause of stress for so many of Coventry's residents.
“I will continue to fight to protect current and future residents of Coventry from this astronomically expensive sewer project and ensure proper due diligence is completed prior to any sewer project potentially moving forward,” he said.
The legislation has been sent to the governor’s desk for consideration.