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Sewer Upgrade Cost Doubles

August 8, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer

The price of a proposed billion-dollar upgrade to the sewer system in Hartford and its surrounding towns has nearly doubled, with the average household expected to see its sewer costs almost quadruple over the next 10 years, according to estimates by the Metropolitan District Commission.

The repair project, which would fix the outdated and overburdened sewer pipes in Hartford and seven other MDC member towns, was originally estimated in 2004 to cost at least $670 million and as much as $1 billion.

But MDC officials have now revamped their estimates, saying the 15-year project will cost $1.6 billion. The increase takes into account higher fuel costs, the skyrocketing price of construction and, most significantly, a leakage problem that has proven larger than expected, officials said.

"We may even be looking at more, depending on who you talk to," said Matt Nozzolio, the MDC spokesman.

The average household now pays about $14 a month, Nozzolio said. Taking into account state and federal grants that the district is expecting to put toward the cost of the project, households can expect an average cost of $50 a month in a decade, he said.

The MDC member towns are Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Windsor and Bloomfield.

Hartford's 19th-century sewer pipes annually leak about 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage into local waterways such as the Connecticut River and Wethersfield Cove. The problem occurs during about 50 heavy rainfalls a year, when too much water enters the aging system, Nozzolio said. As a result, the state and federal governments have mandated that the MDC reduce the leakage.

The commission's board took a step toward fixing the problem Monday when its members approved an initial phase of the work for $800 million. The resolution, which passed 25-4, would place a referendum question on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election for the district's approval.

But Jeffrey A. Wright, a commissioner from Newington, voted against the project, saying the way the MDC decides how much its member towns must pay is not fair.

"We have seen the cost of this project mushroom on us, balloon on us," he said. "And while I think we ought to go forward with this project, because it is in the best interest of the people of the district, my concern is that we have not really talked about the cost on the individual households and the serious impact it is going to have on town budgets."

Currently, the MDC decides how much each town will pay in sewer costs by using a taxation method called "ad valorem," which in Latin means "according to value." This means each town's sewer costs are based on the assessed value of property in the town.

But Wright said that method has unfairly burdened towns such as West Hartford - which has more highly valued property - with more to pay. According to Wright, who said he worked on these numbers with the MDC, the average West Hartford household now pays $239 a year for sewer service. But in 2016, the average West Hartford house will pay an estimated $932 a year.

In contrast, Wright said, the average Hartford home now pays $81 a year but in a decade will pay $316 annually.

"In every town in the district, in the last five or six years we have seen significant property tax increases," Wright said. "The MDC now represents 3 to 3.5 percent in the typical [town] budget. But in 2016 it is going to go up four times. The MDC is going to be a much larger budget item in most of the towns than their police budget."

The bulk of the repair work will be done in Hartford, but the tab will be spread among the MDC's member towns.

The work includes creating separate pipes for water runoff and sewage, fixing cracks that let rainwater in, widening pipes in certain areas, expanding the capacity of the Hartford sewage treatment plant and building underground storage tunnels to hold excess sewage and rainwater until the plant is ready to handle it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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