Bond supporters lash back at opponents in RI

Nov. 3, 2000
Advocates for a $60-million clean-water bond referendum on Tuesday's ballot launched a counteroffensive yesterday, emphasizing that approval of the bonds would benefit municipal sewer systems across the state and, ultimately, all of Narragansett Bay.

By CHRISTOPHER ROWLAND

PROVIDENCE, RI, Nov 02, 2000 (The Providence Journal)—Advocates for a $60-million clean-water bond referendum on Tuesday's ballot launched a counteroffensive yesterday, emphasizing that approval of the bonds would benefit municipal sewer systems across the state and, ultimately, all of Narragansett Bay.

They rolled out their arguments in response to criticism from a citizens group, Operation Clean Government, that the bond question is so vague that voters won't understand it contains money for a massive sewerage tunnel project in the bedrock beneath Providence.

Operation Clean Government is heading to Superior Court as early as today to try to get the clean-water bond request, Question 2, and a transportation bond request, Question 3, thrown off the ballot.

The group contends the questions and accompanying explanations are so broadly worded that they hide large-scale public works projects that should be decided by voters.

The $60 million in clean-water bond money from Question 2 would go to the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, which would use it to make zero-interest loans to a number of communities for sewage- treatment systems. The largest single beneficiary of the clean-water loans would be the Narragansett Bay Commission, which runs the largest sewer system in the state, serving Greater Providence.

What is not disclosed in the state's official explanation of Question 2 is that the commission would use its loan money for the first phase of a $500-million, 20-year project to dig a 3-mile cavern beneath Providence to trap "combined sewer overflows" during rainstorms.

The sewage tunnel has been called one of the largest public-works projects ever contemplated in state history. Advocates say it's well worth it: combined sewer overflows are responsible for up to 2 billion gallons of raw sewage pollution in the Bay every year, forcing the frequent closure of shellfishing beds and beaches.

Operation Clean Government contends voters statewide should be given the chance to cast a specific vote on a public works proposal of that magnitude. But Save the Bay and other advocates want to avoid having Question 2 dragged into parochial squabbling or a debate over how expensive it is to dig tunnels through the Providence bedrock.

Advocates want to remind voters that many other expensive sewer projects from Cranston to Westerly would also receive support with the Question 2 bond proceeds. And, ultimately, they said, the goal of all the projects is cleaning up a statewide economic, recreational and environmental resource, Narragansett Bay.

"Ballot Question 2 really goes to solving lots of problems with regard to clean water, but it seems that somehow the [Narragansett Bay Commission] project has gotten the focus," said Anthony Simeone, executive director of the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency.

"There's significant benefit, and for the focus to be on a single project is unfair to all of the other projects that exist in the state."

The Clean Water Finance Agency was created in 1989 to lend state and federal money and make grants to local sewer authorities. Its first infusion of money came from a 1990 bond issue of $35 million. It has combined that with money from the federal government and other sources to lend $225 million in the last decade.

With the second infusion, the proposed $60 million on next week's ballot, the agency would be able to "leverage" a total of $215 million in zero-interest loans. At least $70 million of that $215 million would go to the Narragansett Bay Commission for the first phase of its sewerage tunnel. If it chooses, the Clean Water Finance Agency could lend more than $70 million for the tunnel, Simeone said.

The remaining loans would be awarded according to a priority list drawn up by the state Department of Environmental Management.

"Other places [besides Greater Providence] are really going to be able to take advantage of this if it happens," said Peder Schaefer, director of Governor Almond's Office of Municipal Affairs.

High on the priority list of multimillion-dollar projects are upgrades to Westerly's sewage-treatment plant, sewer construction in a dozen Warwick neighborhoods and construction of advanced treatment equipment in West Warwick and Cranston. The list also contains money for community programs to repair failing residential septic tanks.

"With this bond, we will be able to see the Pawtuxet River cleaned up, because the Warwick, West Warwick and Cranston sewage treatment plants will all be upgraded," said Curt Spalding, executive director of Save the Bay.

Asked about Operation Clean Government's complaint that Question 2 is too vague, Spalding said, "We would have liked to see Question 2 say that it's a bond issue to clean up the Bay, because that's what it would do. We all benefit from a clean Bay. There's benefit statewide from that."

But Operation Clean Government remains skeptical and is heading to Superior Court. A request for a temporary restraining order was being drafted yesterday, and arguments could take place today, said the group's chairman, Robert Arruda.

Advocates' statements about other communities that could benefit from the bond issue bolster his argument, he said, that more disclosure is needed on the state's official explanation of the ballot.

The ballot questions are put in the "vaguest terms possible," Arruda said, to avoid voter scrutiny.

"We believe that these questions should not be bundled," he said. "They should be proposed to the public individually."

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