Voters in the eight municipalities served by the Metropolitan District Commission will be asked on Election Day whether to allow the MDC to finance through bonding the $800 million second phase of the 15-year Clean Water Project.
The $2.1 billion project primarily aims to address environmental concerns and state and federal regulations by reducing the amount of sewage overflow into the Connecticut River and its tributaries, and lowering the levels of nitrogen discharged into the river.
The project also includes numerous other facets, including fixing old pipes to prevent groundwater from seeping into the sewer system.
The first $800 million was approved at referendum and appropriated in August 2006.
The MDC's charter requires the majority of voters in the commission's eight member towns – Hartford, East Hartford, Wethersfield, Windsor, West Hartford, Rocky Hill, Bloomfield and Newington – to vote "yes" for the referendum to pass.
The MDC is required under a consent order by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a consent decree by the Environmental Protection Agency to complete the project, according to Brendan Fox, assistant district counsel for the MDC.
The order from the DEEP requires the MDC to separate the combined sewer system in Hartford, which uses one pipe for storm water and sewage, causing clean water to be treated at a wastewater treatment plant, Fox said.
The EPA decree says the MDC must "eliminate the sanitary sewer overflows," he said.
Fox and Timothy Dupuis, senior vice president of consulting firm CDM Smith Inc., presented details of the project and referendum question to the West Hartford Town Council on Tuesday.
"We're bound by those [orders] regardless of what occurs in the referendum," Fox said. "The referendum is focused on the financing."
If the referendum passes, customers will continue to pay a "special sewer service charge," which was instituted in 2007 to pay for the first phase of the project.
The surcharge is based on water consumption and is currently $1.90 per 100 cubic feet of water used, which is about $16 a month for the average homeowner, according to the presentation by Dupuis, the project's program manager.
The charge is expected to increase until it hits $5.75 per unit in 2021, and remain at that level until 2038. After that, the charge will decrease while the debt is retired, Dupuis said.
"If [the referendum] fails, we still are required to proceed forward, or else we may be subjected to contempt orders … for failure to comply," Fox said.
If the question is voted down, the MDC will have to pay about $90 million per year "on almost a pay-as-you-go basis" to complete the project, Fox said. The commission won't have the authority from voters to seek long term financing.
"We're required under the consent order to spend an average of $90 million per year to maintain compliance," Fox said.
The money would then likely be raised with an "ad volorem" tax, which would be charged to member towns based on total assessed property values.
The MDC would prefer to "finance with the surcharge because it's the most equitable way to share that cost," Fox said. Those who do not pay a property tax would still be able to contribute with the surcharge, he said.
The MDC can't legally advocate for voters to support the referendum, but a political action committee, or PAC, was formed by others, including members of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, in support of it. Vote YES for Clean Water has a website at http://www.voteyesforcleanwater.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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