Jockeying for sewer bond cash has begun in RI

Nov. 29, 2000
With a court-ordered, $25-million upgrade of the sewage-treatment plant looming, and little spare cash, town officials had been banking on the passage of a $60-million clean-water bond issue on the Nov. 7 ballot to help pay for it.

By ELLEN LIBERMAN Journal Staff Writer

WEST WARWICK, RI, Nov. 28, 2000 (The Providence Journal)—With a court-ordered, $25-million upgrade of the sewage-treatment plant looming, and little spare cash, town officials had been banking on the passage of a $60-million clean-water bond issue on the Nov. 7 ballot to help pay for it.

Now that the voters have approved Question 2, West Warwick is scrambling to ensure that it gets a share of the money.

At a meeting last week, the Town Council, sitting as the sewer commission, expressed some anxiety about how the money will be distributed by the state's Clean Water Finance Agency.

A lot more money is needed statewide than is available, said Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer. We've been at this now for 10 or 12 years, and we just want to make sure we can do it within the affordability of West Warwick rate payers."

If West Warwick feels a special claim to some of the bond money, it's because officials here say they initially organized the effort to draft the proposal that appeared on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Bauer recalled scheduling a meeting with officials from the Pawtuxet River Authority and from West Warwick, Warwick and Cranston to discuss how the state could help pay for the expense of making state-mandated improvements to the three communities' sewage- treatment facilities.

In 1990, the communities signed a consent order with the Department of Environmental Management aimed at improving water quality in the Pawtuxet River, into which their plants discharge. They agreed to upgrade their treatment plants to the tertiary level, meaning they would add a chemical treatment to the current biological process to remove more pollutants.

Together, the three municipalities are facing $77 million in construction costs.

Rep. Richard Fleury, R-West Warwick, and Rep. Eileen Naughton, D- Warwick, working with their colleagues on the House Finance Committee and officials from the state Department of Environmental Management and the Clean Water Finance Agency, came up with the idea of no- interest loans.

The state would issue $60 million in general obligation bonds. The bond-issue money would be placed in a revolving-loan fund overseen by the independent Clean Water Finance Agency, which would make the loans and invest fund balances in guaranteed-return instruments. Over 20 years, officials estimate it would allow the agency to lend out a total of $215 million, interest free.

The creative financing plan will give all 39 Rhode Island communities a chance to apply for no-interest loans for such sewer projects, while costing taxpayers less than using a combination of state grants and market-rate bond issues.

Half of the bond issue is committed to the Narragansett Bay Commission for the construction of a three-mile long underground cavern, essentially a huge holding tank, to collect storm runoff and sewage until it can be treated. About $27 million will be available for other sewer improvement projects throughout the state.

But before the Clean Water Finance Agency can determine who gets what, it must establish the loan criteria.

I think the consent decree [affecting West Warwick, Warwick and Cranston] has to have an impact on the distribution, Bauer said.

Janine Burke, executive director of the West Warwick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility, said that she contacted agency officials immediately after the election to find out how West Warwick could apply. They assured her that the agency would solicit comments from the municipalities seeking a share of the loans before it made any decisions, she said.

Burke said that West Warwick plans to push for criteria which will improve the town's chances of getting a loan. Not only is the town strapped and facing a court order, its sewage-plant project ranks high on the DEM's priority list for its potential impact on Narragansett Bay.

We are going to be right on top of that and pushing for things like financial need and legal compliance, Burke said.

Friday, Anthony B. Simeone, head of the Clean Water Finance Agency, was unavailable for comment.

But Fleury says that each project's readiness will be an important consideration. Town officials shouldn't worry about missing out, as long as the project is ready to proceed when the bond funds become available, in July, he said.

If they get their applications in now, there will be plenty of money for them, Fleury said. Being ready is a priority. And if they have some problems, they have to let me know and I'll go to work, because I have assurances that the money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Burke said that the town is well ahead of its design and engineering schedule and is ready to submit completed plans to the DEM for approval. At next month's council meeting, the town's engineering consultant, James Geremia, will present the plans and the costs to the Town Council.

If the biggest thing is level of readiness of the project to proceed, then we are in really good shape, she said.

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