Marion Waste Water (part 1)

To the Editor;

            We are all a little bit puzzled by what motivated Mark Rasmussen to write his recent article pointing out, among other things, that our sewer rates are high. He was right about that, but everyone in Marion already knew it. He, however, is wrong to suggest that the high rates are due to “decades of mismanagement.” He is wrong to imply that this Board of Selectmen have been sitting on their hands, engaging in what he calls “baseless rejection of science and scapegoating.” We settled the Town’s lawsuit with BBC, basically on Mr. Rasmussen’s terms, and have done nothing but try to build bridges and work with the BBC over the past several years, so we are extremely disappointed with Mr. Rasmussen’s combative tone. The BBC can and should be a partner and an asset to Marion in dealing with our wastewater challenges.

            High sewer fees: Yes, our sewer fees are high. Nobody knows for sure whether there was or wasn’t some mismanagement over fifty years of operation, but we do know that it is not driving the current high sewer fees. We only need to look at the financial statements for the Sewer Enterprise Fund to understand that the primary driver of high fees is debt service.

            As of June 30, 2020, the total debt (not including interest) of the Sewer Enterprise Fund was $24,132,936. The total sewer expense budget for FY 2021 is $2,684,379 (before allocation of indirect costs) of which $1,557,603 or 58 percent is debt service. The balance of $1,126,776 is what we spend to pay five fulltime employees plus one-third of the cost each for our DPW director and our engineering manager.

            We currently are operating with only four employees, short one. All four are licensed to be at the plant, but only two are licensed to run the plant. They are all on-call 24 hours a day and have to take turns working several hours every weekend, year around, to ensure safe operation of the plant. These same individuals also are responsible for our collection system and eight pumping stations. Every one of the eight pumping stations has to be inspected every day, including weekends.

            Our plant employees have done and continue to do a great job. Frank Cooper, who has managed the plant for years, is as competent and knowledgeable as anyone in his position in the industry.

            Marion built a new wastewater treatment plant for approximately $10,196,618 in 2005, financed by debt. The Town still owes $5,591,700 of this new plant debt, which is included in the $24,132,936. Another $5,100,997 of the outstanding debt was used to fund sewer extensions. The balance of $13,440,239 was borrowed to pay for capital plant improvements over the time. Every dime of these expenditures, funded with the issuance of debt, had to be approved in advance by a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting. In addition, the annual operating budget for the Sewer Enterprise Fund is published and approved in advance by the voters at Town Meeting every year. Nothing is spent without public approval in advance. There is total transparency, even for all salaries.

            Where is the waste here due to “mismanagement” over time? Was it a mistake to build the new wastewater treatment plant in 2005? Or, are five fulltime employees too many?

            Regionalization: Rather than mismanagement, Marion’s sewer costs are high because it lacks the economies of scale to run a waste treatment plant and, in particular, to pay for expensive infrastructure projects, which are debt-financed, with only 1,700 ratepayers. There is a high fixed cost to being in the waste treatment business because of the costly infrastructure required, and it is only growing as the regulatory burden increases. Given the large infrastructure investment required, adding more users to our sewer system will lower the cost per ratepayer by spreading this fixed cost over more ratepayers on our system. But, to really make a difference, we need several thousand new ratepayers; thus, a regional approach has real appeal.

            Marion has participated in all BBC-sponsored meetings regarding regionalizing the Wareham Waste Treatment Plant. To date, no conclusion has been reached regarding its feasibility. GHD Engineering continues to research it.

            There, however, are multiple issues to be resolved before we know if regionalization is an appropriate and a financially viable option. The initial estimate to run an 8.5-mile pipe from Marion to Wareham came in at over $20 million. GHD is looking at ways to value engineer transporting wastewater from Marion to Wareham, so that cost could come down some.

            Our understanding is that the Wareham plant has maxed out the volume of treated waste that they are permitted to discharge into the Agawam River. GHD is exploring building a new outfall to carry treated waste from the Wareham plant to the canal, to a location by Mass Maritime, an ideal place to discharge wastewater because of the strong currents. Initial plans to use an old railway line easement were not workable with the Department of Transportation, so, last we heard, GHD was looking at alternatives such as running the outfall under Route 28. As of the last information we had, no decision had been made on where to build the canal outfall and what it would cost. The Wareham plant also is operating close to capacity, so it would need to be expanded at Marion’s expense to accommodate our wastewater.

            If regionalization moves ahead, Marion would have to pay to install a pipe from Marion to Wareham and to share in the cost for expanding the Wareham plant and for building a new outfall to the canal. There are no firm cost estimates for any of these, but the costs will be very large and well beyond what Marion could ever afford. We told BBC, on more than one occasion, that they would need to help Marion obtain substantial financial support for this project for us to move ahead.

            There are other issues. Marion’s plant was built in 2005 and Wareham’s plant was last upgraded in 1999, so our plant is more modern. The Wareham plant sits right on the Agawam River, making it vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and storm surge.

            Regionalization, thus, is still in the early feasibility stage. Once a decision is made to proceed, it could be 10 years or more before this regional plant is operational. During this 10-year period, Marion would have to come up with the money to fund its share of the three components of the construction cost, which would be a monumental financial burden to the Town, because it would be above and beyond the ongoing cost of operating and maintaining our wastewater treatment plant. While regionalization is under study, Marion is and will be spending millions to upgrade our plant under the consent order (with tight deadlines pushing up the cost of this project) and, going forward, to perform any newly mandated regulatory upgrades to continue to meet the requirements of our discharge permit.

John P. Waterman, Marion Selectman

(This letter will conclude in next week’s edition)

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