INSIDE WASHINGTON/Bill would provide upgrade money
Nationwide, cities and counties face the prospect of drowning in debt from the high costs associated with federally mandated upgrades of wastewater treatment plants that do not comply with clean water standards. The cost of compliance is being passed on to consumers in the form of rate hikes, and the rising fees have enraged homeowners. Additionally, in some areas, local leaders say that economic growth is being stunted because tap-in fees are so high that businesses are looking elsewhere to set up shop.
Now, financial relief may be on the way, if a handful of congressmen can persuade colleagues that addressing the issue should be a top priority in this year’s abbreviated legislative session. In a bipartisan effort, Reps. Steven LaTourette (Rep Ohio) and William Pascrell (Dem N.J.) have introduced legislation that would create a $3 billion federal grant program to ease the financial burden municipalities face because of plant upgrades. The bill would make $500 million available in the first year, $1 billion in the second year and $1.5 billion in the final year.
“The federal government is raising the bar when it comes to clean water standards while the pot of money to help communities meet those standards keeps shrinking,” LaTourette says. “We’re not talking about communities making minor, inexpensive changes, either. We’re talking about communities facing projects that cost tens of millions of dollars — and they’re supposed to pay for that.”
The bill is good news for North Royalton, Ohio, Mayor Cathy Luks. She knows firsthand the financial anguish a community faces when it must shoulder the burden in upgrading its wastewater treatment plant.
About six years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency told North Royalton to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant or face a $1 million fine. But the Cleveland suburb of 27,000 people was already $10 million in debt because of previous plant upgrades.
With no choice, North Royalton spent another $20 million to bring the plant into compliance, sinking the city further into debt and forcing it to raise tap-in and water fees.
Now, nearly half of North Royalton’s sewer rate is earmarked specifically to pay off the bond debt service. “It has been extremely unhealthy for our financial status,” Luks says. “Realtors in town have told us that [home] resale purchase prices have declined because of our sewer rates, and the excessive tap-in fees are making it difficult to attract new businesses.”
And North Royalton is not the only community facing problems. According to LaTourette, Hagerstown, Md., lost an $80 million milk factory because of a tap-in fee of nearly $1 million.
In Gloucester, Mass., a population of 29,000 will have to shoulder $58 million of its $95 million wastewater improvement project. Annual water and sewer bills for city residents are expected to increase by $800 — from $600 to $1,400 — and tap-in fees will run about $16,000, Mayor Bruce Tobey says. “Who’s going to build houses in cities where it’ll cost $16,000 just to be able to flush a toilet?” LaTourette asks.
Greg Schaner, a government affairs manager for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA) calls the LaTourette-Pascrell legislation “critically important for almost all communities.” AMSA estimates that upgrades to wastewater systems over the next 20 years will cost at least $330 billion.
Besides AMSA, the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, U.S. Conference of Mayors, American Public Works Association and the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies support the bill.