COVENTRY — As it contemplates what to do about the town’s sewer system, the Coventry Town Council on Saturday welcomed residents to a virtual workshop on the history and potential future of the troubled program.
The informational meeting was intended as a way for the new Town Council to gather input as it prepares to make a decision regarding the sewer program and sewer enterprise fund, Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha said as the event got underway.
There is currently no construction planned on the town’s sewer system, Warzycha added, as the council weighs three possible scenarios for its future.
The town could leave it as is, and allow new customers to join where there are already lines in the ground, he said. There is some development happening in those areas, he said, so there would likely be “a substantial number” of new customers over the coming years.
“The problem with that is the users are limited, the cost is shared by fewer people,” he said, “and the expenses keep going up and up, with equipment that needs to be replaced at times, facilities that need to be upgraded and maintained.”
The second option would involve expanding the program. In that case, the Town Council would need to consider where new pipes should be installed — while it wouldn’t make sense to bring the system to western Coventry, for example, Warzycha said that the industrial portion of Tiogue Avenue and the area of Briar Point should both be high on that list.
The final option, Warzycha said, would include either joining West Warwick in creating a regional system, similar to the Narragansett Bay Commission, or selling the system outright to another entity to “get out of the business completely.”
“The third option is not going to do anything to assist the people already on the system,” he said. “The costs are still going to be there, or could possibly be even higher.”
The history of Coventry’s sewer program stretches back to the 1960s, when a study was conducted on the local need for sewers. The first lines weren’t installed until the 1980s, however. An assessment rate of $3,500 per unit was set in 1997; that increased to $4,200 in 2003, to $6,600 in 2004 and to $12,900 in 2009.
Those assessment amounts weren’t based on any actual costs, Warzycha said.
“These are some of the biggest problems that we faced with the program,” he said. “These numbers were not meeting the need of the cost for the actual program.”
An ordinance adopted in 2015 established assessments based on the total cost of construction and the total design flow of the sewer line.
The most recent projects were started in 2017 on Arnold Road and Hazard Street.
After the town halted construction on those projects amid outrage over the anticipation of $20,000 assessments — a movement that was led by now-councilor James LeBlanc prior to his decision to run for the District 3 Town Council seat — state Auditor General Dennis Hoyle began an investigation into the sewer program to offer recommendations for stabilizing it in the short term, and for making it sustainable in the long term.
The town has been making its way through the auditor general’s 18 recommendations since he presented them in the spring of 2019.
One of Hoyle’s recommendations was that Coventry hire a firm to conduct a sewer use rate study.
After 2014, when it was set to $3.40, Coventry’s sewer use rate wasn’t increased again until last year.
“The council in the past decided not to increase it to where it needed to go,” Warzycha said, adding that that decision, along with the arbitrary assessment amounts, contributed to a significant deficit within the program.
Based on a sewer use rate study by the consulting firm Raftelis, the Coventry Town Council in 2020 voted to increase the rate to $5.10. That would ensure the town was maintaining the 125 percent debt service coverage required on its sewer-related bonds.
There was also a recommendation to establish a minimum use fee for everyone along the line, whether or not they’re connected. Warzycha said the town is currently looking into that.
Another recommendation by Hoyle was to negotiate the reserve capacity component of the 40-year-old intermunicipal agreement with West Warwick for use of the West Warwick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility to ensure that what Coventry pays more closely reflects its actual usage.
Coventry is currently only using around one-tenth of its 2.25 million gallons of daily flow, LeBlanc pointed out.
“We have met several times with West Warwick in an attempt to bring that capacity level down,” Warzycha said. “They have absolutely no desire to take back any of that capacity.”
Glen Skurka, chair of the town’s Sewer Board of Review, suggested Coventry seek a buyer for the excess capacity. Warzycha said the town has had negotiations to do that, and added he’s hopeful that will happen soon.
Hoyle also recommended the town send out assessments for its recently completed sewer projects.
Assessments for Arnold Road and Hazard Street were set last year — 20-year assessments OK’d by the Town Council in October totaled $21,463 for a typical three-bedroom home on Arnold Road, and $26,643 for a similar home on Hazard Street.
“All assessments are out, the rate’s been stabilized,” Warzycha said. “We’ve got a program now that allows us to have a handle on what’s going on.”
Still, one Hazard Street resident, Eric Wilson, said Saturday that he and some of his neighbors felt blindsided when they received their assessments. He said he’d like to see notifications sent to residents at least six months ahead of time.
LeBlanc noted that the auditor general did recommend in his report that affected homeowners be notified two years in advance of construction.
“I 100 percent back that recommendation,” LeBlanc added, “because this is such a financial hardship for many, many people.”
A recommendation to lower the interest rate charged to ratepayers was addressed in 2019, with the council’s vote to drop it from 6 percent to .5 percent above the interest the town pays for its borrowed sewer-related funds, as was a recommendation to set up a program to assist homeowners in need with the establishment of the Waterman/Fiske Sewer Assessment Program. The council also voted to cut police detail and paving costs from assessments, based on another of Hoyle’s recommendations.
Many of the auditor general’s recommendations have been addressed, and the others will be considered if the Town Council does decide to continue the sewer program, Warzycha said.
The council has a lot to consider.
There are numerous ways in which a sewer system would benefit the entire town. One benefit, Warzycha said, is that it would attract businesses to the area. There are also significant environmental benefits to sewer systems, particularly in a town like Coventry where there are a number of lakes, ponds and streams that could be polluted by septic systems and cesspools.
“I think sewers are a necessary part of our town,” Warzycha said. “To let it sit and go stagnant, we can’t do.”
Skurka said he has a number of ideas about how the town could move the program forward if it ultimately chooses to, adding that he recognizes cost is a major concern.
“From what I can tell, we borrow the money, we put in the infrastructure, we charge the people along that infrastructure to recover the cost of the construction in addition to the interest that we incur from borrowing that money,” he said.
It’s also concerning, Skurka said, that current homeowners are stuck with the burden of paying hefty, 20-year assessments on a system meant to last up to 100 years, while future residents will reap all the benefits without that stress.
“They’re not paying anything,” he said. “They essentially bought a house with sewer infrastructure, and they’re just paying the usage fees. We kind of dump the entire infrastructure cost on the person there at the time.”
Skurka said he’d like to come up with a way of spreading that cost out over either a larger period — for example, 40 years — or an indefinite amount of time through monthly billing.
“If we could increase the usage bill, and eliminate the assessment, I think that makes things a lot more affordable for people,” he continued, “but the only way to do that is to have the capital up front to build this sewer infrastructure without borrowing [for] it.”
If the town could find a way to save for each project over a few years — a typical project costs around $1 million, Skurka said — then it might be possible to gradually expand the program while significantly reducing the burden to current homeowners. He suggested the town could complete at least four projects in a 20-year period that way.
As Warzycha transitions into his role as Coventry’s administrative officer once the new town manager arrives next week, he will be tasked with developing a sewer plan, Town Council President Ann Dickson said. The next steps in the process will be addressed during a Town Council meeting in April, she said.
“We can’t change what happened in the past. Any of the mistakes, any of the issues that have occurred, they happened,” Warzycha said. “We only can move it forward, fix those issues, and prevent it from happening again.”