Challenges ahead for water and sewer

Fri, 05/14/2021 - 11:30am

The Water and Sewer Commission met and wrestled with daunting challenges in their budget meeting late Tuesday this past week.
Akin to almost every other island organization, island growth is presenting significant challenges.
The commissioners noted a need to develop long term infrastructure planning that will include upgrades and develop a road map and timeline for future capital expenses. They also noted worrisome capacity issues that are lurking on the immediate horizon that need to be analyzed.
After hearing from each commissioner, and some residents, Chairman Brad Marthens asked for a final vote on a proposed budget. Commissioners settled on an increase of seven percent on user fees, as well as a $50 increase for septic system pump-out rates for disposal of ISDS waste. They arrived at the seven percent increase after tapping the reserve fund for $10,000 to lower a higher proposed rate increase.
Commissioner Kathy Szabo argued for holding the increase to seven percent noting that “businesses are still hurting and that is a significant expense to bear.” The committee had wrestled with going as high as ten percent.
The committee agreed that Covid affected everyone but did not want to go back to where the operating budget was generating deficits. Said Commissioner Tom Doyle, “in the past we didn’t raise the rates when we should have and we created an ever bigger problem. We cannot be responsible to users by allowing that to happen again.” Others noted that expenses remain the same going forward and must be covered by the operating budget.
Finance Director Amy Land cautioned the commissioners that taking money from the reserve account is an indication that they are running their operating budget at a deficit, something that had plagued them in the past, leading to huge rate increases. “We worked hard to get to self-sufficiency and you should be careful not to dip into reserves too much for reasons we all understand. We need that reserve account for unforeseen emergencies.

“Users of the system will get an opportunity to weigh in on the seven percent budget increase Monday when they vote on the budget. The public hearing is scheduled for Monday, May 17, at 4 p.m. During the back and forth discussion, Commissioners wrestled with the need for further automation at the plant. “We’re stuck in the 1990s,” noted one islander during the Zoom meeting. The committee agreed to expend $55,000 for new aeration blowers.
Commissioners supported a water capacity study in concert with creating a written road map to bolster the sewer plant’s backbone and long term equipment needs. The company that built the plant is no longer in business and former company principals told the town they will no longer come to the island to service it. In addition, parts are not available for much of the machinery.
Water capacity may be supplemented via additional wells but no one knows what that amount of water is. Commissioners do know that many large users want to connect to the town’s system including the National Hotel, Champlin’s Marina, the Narragansett Inn, the Boat Basin and others. The list is long and one participant suggested commissioners implement a freeze on allocation till they get a firm handle on capacity constraints, the real capital costs associated with expanding, and the potential and timeline for federal grants to potentially mitigate those costs.