COVENTRY — A public hearing on establishing an assistance program for Coventry homeowners who need help paying sewer assessments became a discussion over the appropriateness of the proposed funding source, before the town council ultimately voted to authorize the program.
Approved 3-1 during Monday’s town council meeting, the Waterman/ Fiske Sewer Assessment Program invites homeowners who need it to apply for grants to offset the cost of new sewer assessments.
“We’re doing all we can to make sewers as affordable as we can,” town council president Kerry McGee said, as the public hearing got underway. “This is a start.”
Administered by the Coventry Department of Human Services and funded by income from the Waterman and Fiske trust funds, there are a couple of ways homeowners may qualify for the assistance program.
Under the assets requirement for eligibility, a homeowner qualifies if the total cost of his or her sewer assessment is more than 15 percent of the home’s value.
“Suppose you had a $100,000 house,” interim town manager Ed Warzycha explained, “and the assessment comes in and it’s, say, $20,000.”
In that case, the homeowner, who normally would be required to pay the $20,000 over a 20-year period, could receive $5,000 up front toward the assessment, reducing the total amount owed to 15 percent of the home’s value.
“That $15,000 would then be spread over the 20 years, reducing your annual cost of the assessment,” Warzycha continued.
Homeowners may also qualify for the program if their income meets federal poverty standards — for instance, a family of four with a monthly income of less than $4,292 could qualify, Coventry Human Services Director Bob Robillard said.
James LeBlanc, a resident of Hazard Street and vocal critic of the town’s sewer program, was the only resident to speak during the public hearing. He said he remains worried by the various other costs associated with the sewer program — for example, sewer connection fees and the cost of getting rid of a septic system.
As the program was written, it will only assist in paying sewer assessments. Warzycha added, however, that the program could in the future be amended to include covering some of those other costs.
“There are only so many things we can do,” Warzycha said, “and we’re trying to assist as many people as possible with this.”
Still, LeBlanc suggested the program doesn’t do enough.
By using the Waterman and Fiske funds, each bequeathed to the town for the specific purpose of supporting “the poor and needy of Coventry,” LeBlanc argued that the town is acknowledging that the sewer project is putting a lot of financial stress on its residents.
“I just feel as though a town-mandated project should not be pushing people into poverty,” LeBlanc added, “and that’s essentially what we’re saying is happening right now.”
Expressing a similar frustration, town councilor Debra Bacon suggested the word “mandated” be inserted into the wording of the ordinance creating the assistance program.
“We’re forcing this [sewer program] onto the residents,” said Bacon, the only councilor to oppose establishing the program Monday.
Bacon questioned whether it’s appropriate to fund the assistance program through the Waterman and Fiske trust funds — which require they be tapped into only to help the needy — when it’s because of the town’s sewer program that some are experiencing poverty conditions.
She said she thinks the two late Coventry residents would “be appalled” at the situation, and added that she’s worried the funds will end up depleted, leaving no money for those who truly need it.
“We are causing this financial hardship on these people,” Bacon continued. “I don’t think [Waterman and Fiske] had the intention of that — that we would be doing this to these people.”
Councilor Ann Dickson, on the other hand, said the public hearing was not being held “to debate whether [the town is] creating a hardship for people.”
“That’s another discussion, which we need to have, which is not really on the agenda,” she said. “We’re here only to decide, if we have a sewer program, and people have a hardship, do we use money from Waterman/ Fiske to assist those people.”
Currently, the Waterman and Fiske funds have more than $3 million in them, Warzycha noted, compared to around $115,000 when they were founded.
“Since its inception, we have let this thing grow, and grow, and grow,” he said. “It’s been a great asset to the town, and we’re not doing anything that would upset this.”
Nicholas Gorham, the town solicitor, added that the wills of Waterman and Fiske left it up to the town to determine the poverty guidelines.
“It’s up to the council to decide,” Gorham said, “but the guidelines the council has chosen in this particular program, I think, are eminently reasonable. They’re based on federal and state law.”
There are also checks and balances within the program to ensure grants don’t exceed the funds’ revenue, Warzycha said, adding that grants will only be given as new streets are added to the sewer program.
“It will only be used sparingly when new roads come online,” he said. “This isn’t something that’s going to be tapped constantly — it’ll be done when the assessments go out.”
Warzycha added that assessments will be sent soon to residents of Arnold Road, Hazard Street and Sand Street, where the sewer was already installed, and that he’s waited to issue those until an assistance program was in place.
“We’re going to assist them, at the very least,” he said. “Going forward, if the council chooses to not advance the sewer program, and not put it in anywhere else, it’s not going to matter.”
With councilor Gary Cote absent, the council voted 3-1 to adopt the Waterman/ Fiske program. Bacon opposed.