Opinion: Marion needs support, not combativeness from the Buzzards Bay Coalition on sewer issues
Editor’s note: This letter is in response to a Dec. 28 letter from Buzzards Bay Coalition President Mark Rasmussen regarding claims from the Town of Marion over the projected cost of the lining of one of the lagoons at its wastewater treatment plant. The Buzzards Bay Coalition sued the town in 2018 for an alleged violation of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act, saying that nitrogen was reportedly leaking from the lagoons and into the nearby Aucoot Cove. The town denies this claim. The case was dropped in 2019 after the town entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Protection to line one of the three lagoons.
To The Editor:
We are all a little bit puzzled by what motivated Mark Rasmussen to write his recent piece 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 tried to build bridges and work with the BBC over the past several years, so we are extremely disappointed with Mr. Rasmussen’s combative tone. BBC can and should be a partner and an asset to Marion in dealing with our wastewater challenges.
Marion’s Lagoon Lining Project
As a result of consent orders with the DEP and EPA and the settlement of the lawsuit with BBC, Marion is required to line lagoon #1, one of our three wastewater lagoons. This is to satisfy the concern that wastewater was leaching into the groundwater and making its way to Sippican Harbor and Aucoot Cove causing significant nitrogen pollution. Our engineering firm CDM Smith and BBC’s Horsley Witten disagreed substantially on the magnitude of the potential problem.
Only during major rain events, when there is a surge of flow into the WWTP due to rainwater infiltration into our collection system, does raw sewerage briefly end up in the lagoons. Once the rainwater infiltration subsides, which normally is within days, we cycle that wastewater back into the plant and treat it.
As a result of dewatering lagoon #1 to prepare to line it, we discovered that there was more than a foot of sludge (about 1,000 tons) in the bottom of peanut butter like consistency, with a hard pan underneath. It is highly unlikely that untreated wastewater was making its way through this peanut butter-like barrier and hard pan into the groundwater. And, if it was, the volume was not likely to be significant. This opinion is informed by the expertise of our engineers and construction workers on the ground.
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% is debt service. The balance of $1,126,776 is what we spend to pay five full time 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 per 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 have 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 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 full time employees too many?
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 with only 1,700 rate payers, which are debt-financed. 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 rate payer by spreading this fixed cost over more ratepayers on our system. But, to really make a difference, we need several thousand new rate payers, 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 are, however, 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 which 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 Rte. 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 beyond the ongoing cost of operating and maintaining our Waste Water 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.
Other Sources of Revenue
Almost two years ago Mr. Rasmussen first suggested to us the idea of subsidizing the operation of our Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP) through general tax revenues. At that time, he mentioned Falmouth as an example. We looked into what Falmouth was financing with general tax revenues and we considered this approach. Now he mentions Chatham. There is, however, no free pot of money — at least Marion doesn’t have one. The real question is who pays. Does the entire Town of Marion pay to run our Waste Water Treatment Plant or only residents connected to the sewer pay? What is fair?
After looking at Falmouth, we concluded in order to justify the use of general tax revenues to finance our WWTP we would need to be able to demonstrate a broad benefit to the community. In our opinion, the current upgrades to the WWTP do not meet that test. On the other hand, we sought and received voter approval to pay for the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) through an override to raise general tax revenues. The CWMP is a twenty-year road map for managing wastewater for our entire community including identifying and prioritizing areas to extend the sewer. This was easy to justify as benefiting the entire community.
But there are other issues. Not only are our sewer fees high, but our real estate taxes are high due to our small tax base. There also are considerations such as the non-profits in Town. They pay sewer fees but they don’t pay general taxes.
Chatham is building a new wastewater treatment plant with the intention to sewer much of the town. A new plant with plans to sewer much of the town easily would meet our test of providing broad community benefit. There also is talk of connecting Harwich Port into the new plant which would provide broader based support for the cost of the plant.
Chatham has a much larger tax base and thus more room to raise taxes. Using the most current state numbers available online, the assessed value of Chatham’s real estate is $7.9 billion, its population is 6,160, the average real estate tax per household is $4,842, and per capita income is $53,719.
How does that compare with Marion? The assessed value of Marion’s real estate is only $1.9 billion, its population is 5,143, the average real estate tax per household is $7,371, and per capita income is $54,984.
Chatham’s tax base is more than four times Marion’s, but its population is only about 20% bigger. With about the same average income as Marion, the average household in Chatham pays 34% less in real estate taxes. Chatham thus has many more degrees of freedom than Marion to raise money off its general tax base.
In Marion, 93% of the tax burden falls on the residential tax payers, who make up only 37% of the Town’s land use. Marion lacks any meaningful commercial/industrial base. Marion’s tax problem is aggravated by the fact 34% of the land area is permanently conserved and pays no taxes. The recent purchase of the Hoff property and BBC accepting ownership of three prime building lots on Point Road only make the problem worse. We continue to shrink our tax base, further increasing the burden on our residential tax payers.
Mr. Rasmussen also points to the Sandwich Water Infrastructure Investment Fund. That Town implemented a 2% property tax surcharge for this fund. In order to sell it to voters, it reduced the property tax surcharge collected under the Community Preservation Act (CPA) from 3% to 2%, so the net increase to voters was only 1%. Sandwich’s 2% surcharge for its Infrastructure Fund, in our view, is just a tax increase under another name. All it does is lock in funds for a specific purpose, giving the voters less control over this spending in the future. It is not found money.
Marion’s CPA property tax surcharge is only 2%, not 3%. Every year, we have people lining up requesting funds for a wide range of projects beneficial to the Town. Many of these projects would not get funding without CPA funds. If available CPA funds were reduced, we would have to find other sources of funding for projects such as redoing the exterior of the Town House, which was funded with CPA funds (and some generous help from the Sippican Historical Society). The need for CPA Funded projects would not go away. Using CPA funds to subsidize the improvements to the Waste Water Treatment Plant would crowd out other important projects and would not give the Town a new source of revenue.
Nonprofits such as Tabor and, yes, BBC pay sewer and water fees. They do not pay real estate taxes. Shifting part of the cost burden of our WWTP from the Sewer Enterprise Fund to general tax revenues lets these non-profits off the hook. There is real money at stake here. For FY 2019, the last full fiscal year we have numbers for, Tabor paid over $430,000 in sewer and water fees. Using general tax revenues to subsidize the Sewer Enterprise Fund effectively would be giving non-profits such as Tabor and BBC a discount on their sewer and water bills at the expense of the Marion tax payers.
Needed Support from BBC
We have not been sitting on our hands. We previously considered all of Mr. Rasmussen’s suggestions. All his ideas simply have us looking in different pockets for the money, when ultimately the money comes from the same taxpayers, whose real estate taxes, and sewer and water fees, are already too high. This is why Marion desperately needs outside funding – either grants or state funding – to help mitigate the cost of these upgrades to the WWTP.
Over the past several years, we asked BBC for help in obtaining grant funding and state financial support. They have not helped to date. In addition, we asked them whether it made sense to consider regionalizing the Marion Waste Water Treatment Plant, for example, to tie in Rochester and parts of Mattapoisett and Wareham. (Among many reasons, it would be much less expensive to extend Marion’s current outfall (which surfaces in a brook short of Aucoot Cove) out into Buzzards Bay than for Wareham to build a new outfall from their plant to the canal.) BBC, to our knowledge, has not followed up on this idea. We need BBC to be a partner with Marion and not an adversary.
Towns such as Marion already have regulators, the EPA and DEP. It seriously complicates any negotiations Marion might have with the DEP and EPA, when BBC interjects itself into the negotiations, sues it, and then attempts to impose its own regulations and deadlines on the town. This is what happened to Marion. BBC, as a non-profit, is supported by the residents of the communities on Buzzards Bay and exists to serve and support them, not to sue them. We would hope the Board of the BBC would back us on this point going forward.