The Marion Board of Selectmen know that its article to spend $350,000 on a comprehensive wastewater management plan will likely be a hard sell to Town Meeting voters on May 13, but Selectman John Waterman is fighting hard to get residents to understand why this plan is critical and he urged voters to consider Article 10 during a pre-town-meeting forum on April 18.
Marion’s wastewater woe peaked back in February when the board learned its primary engineering firm, CDM Smith, utterly underestimated the cost to line wastewater lagoon 1 and make associated upgrades to the plant.
Town Meeting appropriated $2.5 million last year, and this year is being asked to appropriate an additional $3 million to perform the government-mandated work, which voters will see in Article 8 on the warrant. Furthermore, Article 9 asks to appropriate another $1.7 million for the needed upgrades to the plant’s ultraviolet disinfection equipment, for a wastewater grand total of exactly $4,752,294, a brunt the 1,700 sewer ratepayers will be forced to bear.
For Waterman, before the Town can even move forward in its exploration of a feasible and affordable wastewater future for Marion, the Town simply must have a plan. And the wastewater management plan it does have is 20 years old, completed two decades before today’s more stringent environmental requirements and, apparently, not helping Marion with its capacity to cope with the burden.
Moving forward in any new wastewater direction without a plan, says Waterman, would be futile.
“It’s like building a foundation for a building that we don’t know what it is going to look like over time,” Waterman said using his preferred analogy.
“As everyone knows, we’re focusing on infrastructure here. It’s not pretty, but some day it’ll pay dividend, we’re hoping,” said Selectman Randy Parker who, along with Waterman, sought to place the article on the warrant. Selectmen Chairman Norm Hills was not in support of asking for an additional $350,000 at this time, but on April 18 he acknowledged that the Town’s current wastewater plan has reached “the end of life.”
But one resident wasn’t happy that all taxpayers would be footing the bill for an updated plan. Why should taxpayers with septic systems pay for part of this plan instead of just the sewer ratepayers?
“This is a community-wide look at our wastewater infrastructure,” Waterman explained. The Board of Selectmen, the Department of Public Works, and the Board of Health would all be working together to assess infiltration and inflow of stormwater, and failed septic systems of non-sewer residences. “And failed septic systems is one of the biggest sources of nitrogen in Buzzards Bay, so we’re looking at, community-wide, coming up with a long-term plan for our wastewater infrastructure. It’s not just the sewer enterprise [residences].”
But what about Tabor Academy, one resident asked. “We’re talking about Tabor Academy who is our biggest water and sewer user in town and they’re not going to pay a dime; they’re tax exempt.”
Waterman pointed to Aucoot Cove residences on septic, saying there have been issues with failed septic systems there for years. But, without a new plan, the Town cannot address the best options for Aucoot Cove and other areas of town relative to feasible sewer tie-ins, either to Marion’s plant, Mattapoisett’s (Fairhaven’s), or even a “mini wastewater treatment plant” for more secluded areas of town, as Waterman suggested.
“Multiple questions like that,” Waterman said, “many that involve million-dollar decisions that will affect the whole community, not just someone on the sewer system today, and for that we need a road map.
“It affects everyone,” Waterman stated. “Not just those on the sewer enterprise fund.”
Hills referred to newer, modern septic system technology that reduces nitrogen emission into the ocean and groundwater, which he says would be in the Town’s best interest to explore, with, perhaps, possible betterments to help septic upgrades become more affordable for residents. All aspects Waterman said would be addressed in a new plan.
“But these are things that we have to deal with as a town,” said Waterman. “We can either start to deal with it ourselves and have a plan, or, like everything else, the regulators are gonna come along and make us, so we’re trying to be proactive here … and put in a long-term plan. It’s not going to happen overnight.
“We need expert help to help us work though these different options,” continued Waterman, “deciding what the best and most cost-effective approach is going forward, and we obviously don’t know that.”
There are some questions that remain unanswerable, Waterman acknowledged that night, “And that’s why we need a plan.”
Using a plan to explore the Town’s options is the only way to identify ways to increase sewer tie-ins and possibly reduce sewer rates.
“We have hundreds of questions like this and a lot of decisions about millions of dollars,” said Waterman.
Finance Committee member Alan Minard pointed out that the mechanism that would be utilized to fund the comprehensive wastewater infrastructure plan would be a one-year, “one-time hit” for taxpayers known as a capital outlay override. In other words, instead of an override or a debt exclusion, the wastewater plan would be paid for in one year using a one-time tax increase.
For the average $600,000 home in Marion, that means a one-time, one-year tax increase of roughly $121, according to Finance Director Judy Mooney.
“The millions we have at stake moving forward … are huge,” Waterman stated, “and we don’t want to be playing defense. We’ve been playing defense from now, waiting for the regulators to come along and make us do stuff … and we want to finally participate and be ahead of this.”
Waterman said one of the biggest mistakes in Marion for years has been to say ‘no’ to new sewer hookups, “And I think, for environmental reasons, sewer hookups make sense, and we’re suffering now from the fact that this town has had no new growth – and that affects our taxes. We’re totally dependent on our [residential] tax base … because we don’t have any growth because we can use sewer hookups as a way to say no to them and we need to change that.”
The next regular meeting of the Marion Board of Selectmen is scheduled for May 9 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Board of Selectmen
By Jean Perry