Everyone Knows That The Sewer System Needs To Be Overhauled, Towns Like West Hartford Say They Are Paying Too Much.
November 23, 2006
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
The core sewer infrastructure serving the Hartford region is over 150 years old.
According to a report by the Metropolitan District Commission, the non-profit agency that regulates the sewage and drinking water of eight area towns, the Hartford-area system is antiquated and overtaxed. Originally built to handle the water needs of 15,000 city residents, the system currently serves nearly 400,000 stretched out over the suburbs. About 50 times a year, during heavy rains, many of the cracked and broken pipes and sewers overflow, forcing sewage to the streets of Wethersfield, Rocky Hill and Hartford.
One local environmental activist said the system’s problems affect the capital city the hardest.
“Hartford is the only place that has sewage that 50 times a year comes into the streets and regularly has sewage come into people’s homes,” Mark Mitchell, the president of the Connecticut coalition for environmental justice, said.
The Clean Water Project Capitol Improvement Plan, a $1.6 billion project intended to update and improve the area’s sewer system, shouldn’t be controversial. A bond referendum concerning the Clean Water project was passed by voters on Nov. 7. The vote funded approximately $83 million in bond funding for the first phase of the project, including improvements mandated by both the state and federal EPA, who were probably spooked by the MDC’s data, which includes fun facts like “more than 1 billion gallons of untreated wastewater overflows into area streams and waterways annually.”
Even the measure’s critics say the Clean Water Project is a timely and necessary idea. What’s not as agreed upon is how the eight MDC member cities — Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, East and West Hartford, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor — are splitting its cost.
The MDC currently determines the amount each of its member towns should pay into the system by judging how much each town on property taxes and past paid taxes paid by a town to determine how much a town should pay towards MDC fees. Under that formula, West Hartford pays the most per person out of the eight MDC member towns — according to the MDC’s 2007 budget, West Hartford pays about 80 percent of what Hartford does, despite having half the Capitol’s population. MDC estimates say that average Hartford family would pay $319 annually for the Clean Water project by 2016, while a West Hartford household would pay $771 at that time (Bloomfield’s households would pay $265, East Hartford $524, Newington $548, Rocky Hill $641, Wethersfield $630, Windsor $589). West Hartford officials said they applaud the project, but feel the town’s share of the payment is unfair.
“We’ve always said the project itself is fine. We’ve never had a disagreement that it needs to be done. It’s a worthwhile project from a number of different aspects,” West Hartford Town Manager James Francis said. “It would have been nice if it had been done in the last 30 years, but it wasn’t. The issue is how to pay for it.”
According to the MDC’s report, about half of the intital $80 million slated to be spent on the project will go towards improvements in Hartford. Slightly over $10 million is slated for sewer overflow in West Hartford.
“Hartford residents pay less than any other towns and West Hartford pays the most. West Hartford and the other suburbs are complaining that it’s not fair for them to pay more than Hartford,” Mitchell said.
Despite the cost, voters in West Hartford resoundingly backed the plan in the election, with an estimated 9000 to 3000 votes. Despite the vote, many in West Hartford object to the division of the burden of payment.
“Because we have the higher grand list and the higher payment of taxes, we get an unfair porportion of that. In essence you’re asking people to pay for their sewer charge based on the cost of your home,” Francis said.
One West Hartford official said the MDC cost disparity wasn’t isolated to just this project; the Clean Water project funding is the latest manifestation of an ongoing disparity.
“We pay the largest share of cost to the MDC, period. And we believe it’s disporportionate. Under the present funding scenario, that disporportionate ratio would also encompass the new project,” West Hartford Mayor Scott Slika said.
West Hartford residents and officials have clashed with the MDC in the last year. In Oct., 2005 heavy rains caused wastewater to flood several homes in the Elmwood neighborhood. The MDC spent $150,000 cleaning up the homes. Claiming the MDC had failed to ensure the homes were safe, a group of homeowners engaged the MDC in a protracted fight over damages. They enlisted the town’s government and appealed to state agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Attorney General’s office. Two residents settled earlier this month.
MDC spokesman Matt Nozzolio said the MDC is exploring other options of distributing the payments for the Clean Water project. Nozzolio said the MDC was considering shifting from property tax to surcharge on water bills. In that scenario, Nozzolio said, most towns’ cost would rise, but West Hartford’s cost would decrease marginally, with West Hartford tax payers paying about $80 less a year than they would under the present structure.