Marion Finance Committee members were curious about the future of the town’s wastewater treatment plant while discussing the operations budget for the Department of Public Works on February 17 and asked DPW Superintendent Rob Zora to update them. Zora had nothing positive to say about it.
The average sewer user in Marion could see their bill double in the foreseeable future. Triple, even, according to Zora, should the worst-case scenario arise.
“I don’t know what that is just yet,” said Zora, “but there will be an increase, no question about that.”
The Water and Sewer Commissioners, along with the three selectmen, will likely place an article on the Annual Town Meeting, Zora said, asking for $1.5 million to start the planning and design process for lining the three wastewater lagoons at the plant – something that must be done whether or not the EPA grants the town its new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is less stringent than the original draft calling for the elimination of the three lagoons.
“It’s gonna be very expensive for this town, and I don’t know how we are gonna afford it,” said Zora.
We are talking millions of dollars, Zora emphasized. And every time they run the numbers, he said, it looks bleaker by the tens of millions.
“Regardless of what is in that permit, we are gonna line those lagoons – unless we challenge it,” said Zora.
In addition to the planning and design, Zora said it will cost another roughly $3 million for the membrane lining of the 20 acres of lagoon. And that does not take into account the disposal of the existing sludge at the bottom of the lagoons – at least another $3 million, he added.
“We are being held hostage and it’s not good for the town,” said Zora. All of these unfunded mandates, he said, “I don’t know how we’re gonna fight it. I don’t know how people are going to afford to live in Marion…. I don’t see any answers.”
Finance Committee Chairman Alan Minard offered up a few wastewater-related puns to keep the conversation from sinking into despair.
The group also discussed the sewer’s 450 or so low-pressure grinder pumps that propel the wastewater from residents’ houses toward the main gravity lines leading to the plant.
“This is steadily becoming a problem,” Zora said. With frequent breakdowns, Zora said the department has spent $40,000 in the last six months making repairs.
The pumps, according to Zora, generally have a 15- to 20-year lifespan. The pumps, though, are only about 9 to 10 years old.
“I think it’s time we turn it around on the residents and say, ‘Hey. We carried it for ten years. Now it’s up to you to take it for the next ten,’” said Zora, after one of the FinCom members wondered why residents already do not hold responsibility for their operation.
Minard asked Zora if there were any areas of any of his budgets from which they could cut to help make up for a half a million-dollar shortfall in the town’s overall budget.
Finding very little, Minard said he wanted to explore chopping back the utilities budget a bit, given the difference in gasoline prices and the new electricity aggregate program which has dropped electricity rates by a few percentage points.
“Is this the area where we could roll the dice on a little bit?” Minard asked Zora. Zora agreed, and Minard assured him that, if utilities costs were to rise, the budget would be restored.
The next meeting of the Marion Finance Committee is scheduled for February 24 at 7:00 pm at 13 Atlantis Drive.
By Jean Perry