Colchester voters will consider a ballot measure to allocate $9.65 million in local option taxes to help fund the multi-million Malletts Bay sewer project this Town Meeting.
After several hours of debate last Tuesday, the selectboard voted unanimously to add the item to the ballot.
If voters say yes to the project in the March vote, the town will use $2.15 million of LOT funds up front to cover costs of installing service laterals for Bay homes, part of a $14.3 million project to reduce human wastewater pollution in Malletts Bay.
The project is already eligible for about $3.5 million in grants, which could possibly increase up to $5 million, public works director Bryan Osborne said. The town would then take out a state clean water loan for the remaining $8.6 million.
In order to avoid raising property taxes, Osborne explained, the proposed solution would use up to $250,000 a year in LOT funds to pay back the 30-year loan. The remainder would come from users: It will cost a single-family home $427 a year, he said.
Single-family homes would also be charged a $364 per year to cover general operation and maintenance for a total of about $791 per year, placing the project on par with the cost for single-family homes on the existing system, Osborne said.
These users will pay the $791 per year even after the 30-year loan is repaid. A portion of these payments, plus connection fees from new development, will repay the borrowed LOT funds. Projections show 91 single-family homes could be built in the service area over 50 years, as well as about 87,000 sq. ft. of commercial space, Osborne said.
Resident Jack Scully wondered if the town should use so many LOT funds for the project and suggested they might be better used to reduce property taxes or for other capital projects.
Selectboard chairwoman Nadine Scibek reminded residents the town can’t use LOT funds to directly reduce taxes but rather to pay for projects like this one that taxpayers couldn’t normally afford. Osborne said the project would only use 15 percent of the town’s annual $1.54 million in LOT revenues per year to pay off the loan. The town could still pay off its debt and work on other capital projects in the future, he said.
Selectboard member Herb Downing said he supports the project because he feels it is the right time for Colchester, which he said is in great financial shape.
“I’d like you to point out to me a municipal project that’s $14 million that doesn’t raise people’s property taxes,” Downing said.
Osborne said if the town waits another year to install sewers, inflation would push the project cost up by a half-million dollars.
He also noted the importance of timing: Because the sewer will be constructed deep underground, the project should be built before any road improvements in the service area to avoid wasting money by digging up the ground again later. Delaying the sewer project means other improvements will most likely be delayed, he said.
Resident Marilyn Sowles worried that municipal sewers would rapidly build up Malletts Bay, leading to congestion and further pollution.
Osborne assured her the infrastructure would not create extreme development like high-rises and hotels due to the limited wastewater capacity in the area. Colchester diverts its wastewater to the South Burlington plant, which is at full capacity.
Osborne said the town doesn’t need to worry about exceeding its wastewater allotment. The estimated 110,000 gallons created by a full build-out in the bay is easily absorbed into the town’s maximum output, particularly because the Severance Corners development was permitted for more gallons than it will ever use, he said.
“There isn’t hydraulic capacity within the pipe sizes to even allow that to happen,” Osborne explained. “It’s a hard constraint that’s been put into the design.”
Mike Whalen, Colchester Fire District No. 2 Prudential Committee president who was previously involved with the project before the fire district bowed out, echoed Osborne’s sentiments.
“This is a very modest project,” he argued. “This is not a project, at 81,000 gallons, [that’s] going to have a huge impact on growth within the bay. It’s not going to lead to a bunch of high-rises.”
Resident Phyllis Bryden inquired why bay residents aren’t responsible for replacing their own failing sewer systems and are instead forcing the whole town to get involved.
Osborne said for one, the town can’t legally force residents to take care of their sewers under the state wastewater laws until the system fails. But the bay already has many environmental and lot-size constraints that make it difficult to maintain private septic systems.
“Shouldn’t people do this themselves? Absolutely,” he said. “But I hate to say it: When it comes to something like this, a very small percentage of the people are going to do it.”
Two years ago, an Environmental Protection Agency-funded study concluded the best solution to keep human waste bacteria out of the bay was to build a municipal sewer.
Responding to Bryden, selectman Downing argued the town should be concerned with the bay pollution because it affects the whole town.
“The sense of this board is that the cleanliness and the clean water in Malletts Bay is important,” Downing said. “It’s not really a question of whether it’s a private issue or a public issue. We feel that it’s important enough to spend $14 million to fix it.”