COVENTRY — Three years after residents of Hazard Street and Arnold Road first took the town to task over high assessment estimates for the sewer lines being installed in their neighborhoods, the Coventry Town Council has authorized sewer assessments for homeowners on those streets that many argue are still too high.
The assessment for a typical three-bedroom home on Arnold Road, approved unanimously by the council Tuesday with councilor Debra Bacon absent, will be $21,463, to be paid over 20 years; on Hazard Street, a home with the same number of bedrooms can expect to be assessed $26,643.
“I know this is going to be difficult for people,” interim town manager Ed Warzycha said, adding that one reason he’d initially proposed a level-funded Fiscal Year 2021 budget was in anticipation of these assessments.
“We have to get these online,” he continued. “We’ve got to get them into the system. Regrettably, we don’t have an option — they’ve got to be done.”
After the town halted construction on the project amid residents’ complaints over anticipated assessments of some $20,000, state Auditor General Dennis Hoyle undertook an investigation into its controversial sewer program to offer recommendations for stabilizing the program in the near term, and 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 last year.
“We’re doing everything that was recommended,” Warzycha said Tuesday. “We’re fixing it all.”
An assistance program was created to help eligible homeowners, for example, and the town council adopted an amendment to the sewer ordinance that effectively cut the interest rate charged to sewer users nearly in half.
The town also recently voted to increase the sewer use rate for the first time in more than six years, based on the results of a rate study that Hoyle had recommended.
Another recommendation by the auditor general was that paving costs and the cost to hire police detail be excluded from assessments.
“We’ve done that,” Warzycha said. “We’ve tried to meet all of the requirements on what the auditor general has recommended.”
The assessments approved Tuesday, which Warzycha said should be sent out within the coming days, are based on the total cost of the sewer lines' construction, minus the costs of paving and police.
On Arnold Road and Sand Street, where three of 39 residential properties along the line are currently tied in, the residential rate that assessments are based on is $62.08 per gallon of daily flow. Homeowners on Hazard Street, meanwhile, will be charged $77.18.
Three years ago, the Hazard Street assessments were actually projected to be lower than those for homeowners on Arnold Road, at $60.25 per gallon, said Monique Houle, Coventry’s tax collector. But since the project was halted, and now only nine properties are on the line compared to the 29 that were initially supposed to be included, the assessments for those residents are higher than had been estimated.
“There was a big push in 2018 to stop the sewers, led by the Hazard Street area, and we did,” council president Kerry McGee said. “If we had completed the whole street it would have been a lot less… we get it, it’s expensive. But these are bills that have to be paid.”
James LeBlanc, a resident of Hazard Street, criticized town officials and administrators for speaking about the project’s suspension as if it was a bad thing. If not for the uproar three years ago, he said, the town may never have taken the steps necessary to address its troubled sewer program.
“You guys talk as if this stoppage on Hazard Street was horrendous,” he said. “First of all, the auditor general would never have come in. You wouldn’t have gotten 18 recommendations, and current residents and future would never have gotten the reduced interest rate… that saved them $9,000 each.”
Finance Director John Arnett agreed that bringing the auditor general in did have a positive outcome, having led the town to making some important structural changes within the program.
“We definitely have learned a lot of lessons from this,” Arnett said. “This would be a wonderful case study for the future — there’s a lot going on here, and we can’t go back in time and start things all over again. We have to move forward.”
LeBlanc added that he’s frustrated over the timing of the assessments.
“During a global pandemic we’re going to be mailing out anywhere between $25,000 and $60,000 assessments,” he said.
Kenneth Searle, who said he expects to be assessed around $21,000, echoed the concerns about the impact the charges will have on those few residents being forced to connect.
“I am not the only one concerned about the economic hardship this assessment is going to place on me and others who live on this sewer line,” he said.
Still, Searle said he understands how a public sewer system benefits, both environmentally and economically, the town as a whole. Because of that, he suggested the financial burden be shared among all residents.
“We should all share as community in those projects that will provide benefit to all of us,” he said, asking that the council “publicly and openly consider spreading the cost of the town sewer among all of the town taxpayers.”
Theresa Wilson, of Hazard Street, wanted to know why someone who lives on their own should have to pay for so much more flow than they would likely be using. Residents on her street are especially concerned about some of their elderly neighbors.
“We have quite a few residents on this road that are older… maybe it’s one elderly retired person living in a three-bedroom home that they’ve lived in for 50 years,” Wilson said. “They’re clearly not using the amount of sewer and wastewater services that a typical three-bedroom home [is using].”
Assessments are calculated based on the number of bedrooms in a home — they’re determined by the number of bedrooms times 115 gallons times the rate — and not by how many people occupy those homes. Warzycha said 115 is what the state Department of Environmental Management recommends.
Arnett pointed out, too, that the use rates reflect the actual amount of water used.
Gerry Narkiewicz, president of the Tiogue Lake Association, also chimed in Tuesday. He said he’s heard from a number of residents — some who want to connect to the sewer line, and others who don’t — about whether or not the sewer would be coming to them.
Despite it having since expired, after a moratorium was placed in January of 2018 on all new sewer construction, no plans have been made to extend the sewer line.
“I think those decisions are going to rest on future councils,” councilor Gary Cote said.
And moving forward, Warzycha said, the town should look into installing lines in commercial areas, rather than residential. He said his hope is for the next project to run down Tiogue Avenue so that businesses there can connect.
“We don’t need to be putting these into residential areas at this point in time,” he said.