Council scuttles sewer plan

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

By Mike Elfland
Telegram & Gazette Staff

FITCHBURG-- A $6.8 million sewer-improvement plan, aimed in large part at diverting sewage from the Nashua River, was struck down by the City Council last night.
The four councilors who stood in the way of the required two-thirds approval said they were wary of the size of the increase in the sewer rate that Mayor Dan H. Mylott said would be necessary to cover the project's cost. The mayor wanted to hike the sewer rate from 85 cents per 100 cubic feet to $1.15 per 100 cubic feet, effective June 1, and another 30 cents in August 2004.
The $6.8 million loan order sought by the mayor required support from eight councilors on the 11-member panel. Six councilors voted yes and four voted no. The opposition came from Councilors Susan M. Koeck, Jody M. Joseph, Annie K. DeMartino and Herman J. Bourque. Councilor Rosemary D. Reynolds was absent.
In a separate vote, the council approved a two-step increase in the city water rate. The mayor had sought a one-time, 60-cent increase, from the current rate of $1.96 per 100 cubic feet, but councilors opted for two 30-cent increases. The first goes into effect in June and the second in February 2003.
The water rate vote required majority backing. Loan orders require two-thirds support. A related petition that would have increased sewer rates was tabled.
The votes for the water rate and the loan order yielded the same supporters and detractors. Supporters of each were Councilors Stephan Hay, Ralph R. Romano, Matthew L. Moison, Matthew C. Straight, E. Thomas Donnelly and Kevin P. Maynard.
Like the sewer money sought by the mayor, the money raised from the increased water rate will be used for capital improvements. The city water and sewer systems require several improvements to come into compliance with state and federal guidelines. The Water Department has targeted $34 million for various projects, notably for two filtration plants, one of which opened last year.
The city sewer system includes several combined sewer and storm water systems, resulting in the repeated dumping of untreated sewage into the Nashua River. The federal Environmental Protection Agency fined the city $137,000, and the mayor and Department of Public Works Commissioner James Shuris had targeted much of the $6.8 million to separate the systems.
"We're taking our raw sewage and dumping it into the Nashua River," said Mr. Moison, who voted in favor of the loan order. "Passing the loan order means cleaning up our river. It means doing what is right."
Opponents of the loan order briefly discussed alternative rate-increase schedules for the loan order, but no alternative found its way to the table.
Mr. Mylott said after the meeting that the matter remains in the hands of the council. He said he has been clear about the importance of the sewer work and it is up to the council to come to an agreement on how best to pay for it.
Much of the meeting was spent discussing the water rates. Mr. Joseph and Mrs. DeMartino repeatedly suggested that the Water Department tap its reserves to help defray a rate increase.
Judith Judge, deputy commissioner for water supply, said her department has about $4 million in retained earnings. She said the money is targeted to necessary improvements to Lovell Dam and for water-main construction.
"I'd like to have $4 million. I'd like to have $1 million. That's a nice little nest egg," Mrs. DeMartino said.
"It's spoken for," said Mrs. Judge, who later suggested she was being penalized for running an efficient department, in which money is set aside for projects.
Mr. Joseph said some of the retained earnings could be used to delay the second 30-cent increase from next February to next June. Mrs. Judge said such a move was not out of the question, but it would delay water-main improvements.
"That's the money the customers have paid into the fund," Mr. Joseph said.
His bid to delay the second increase was struck down by the six councilors who favored the February rate hike.