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City Council votes to place sewer project on hold

Date: 12/12/2012

By Carley Dangona

AGAWAM — After numerous discussions and a workshop, the city council voted 10 to 1 to table the Southwest Area Sewer Extension Project Phase II indefinitely at its Dec. 3 meeting.

The main objection to the project was its cost and the resulting tax hikes. The projected expense of the phase including the cost of constructing the sewer system, creating two pumping stations and improving to streets affected by the project — is approximately $10.5 million.

"At this point, we as a community need to decide if it makes fiscal sense to expand the sewer system," Christopher Johnson, City Council president, said. "This is one of the most significant capital improvement projects in the past 30 to 40 years that Agawam has seen."

He estimated that residents would see a combined rate increase of 81 percent once Phase II was completed and its cost is added to the hike already created by the first phase.

City Councilor Robert Rossi, one of the main proponents of the project, was of the ten councilors who voted to shelve the work, pending further exploration. "The table motioning was necessary. If it had been voted on [as the phase is proposed now] it would have been voted down. Tabling was the best way to resolve the issues and then move forward, " he said.

As chair of the Council's Administrative Committee, Rossi was part of the team that prepared the phase's proposal. He said, "I thought the package was fair and reasonable. We tried to be transparent in our reports. I'm not disappointed at all [by the tabling]. If they want to tweak the plans, it's okay with me."

Johnson stated, "We're at the crossroads, so to speak. If we want to move forward with the project, we have to do so with our eyes wide open. I respect those councilors that want it to move forward and I understand why they want that."

He noted that the purpose of the Nov. 28 workshop, which the entire city council and Mayor Richard Cohen attended, was for everyone to become "intimately familiar" with the details of the proposal.

"I sponsored the resolution for the loan order, to create a collaborative, open dialogue," Cohen stated. He too had questions regarding the impact of the project and thought it best to wait until all issues were addressed before implementing the second phase.

Rossi addressed some of the issues raised. "There are some conflicts people are getting the wrong idea," he stated. "The project is not going to affect the tax or water rate. Only the sewer rate will be affected. Some said businesses would be run out of town — none of that stuff is accurate."

Currently, the possibility of establishing a septic repair loan program is being researched. "It is a much less expensive way to help citizens," Johnson added. Creating this option would benefit residents in need of septic system repairs and upgrades to have a means to afford them. The details of the program are in the process of being defined.

"Somewhere down the line, we're going to have this thing. We're only going to be forced to pay for it later at a higher cost. The low interest loans are not a permanent fix," Rossi continued.

He cited leaching as one reason the issue needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. As the current septic systems in the area degrade, the rate of leaching will increase.

This obvious environmental issue would be compounded if the materials leach into soil in Connecticut, which borders the section. "If that happens, the cleanup will be at our expense per the Department of Environmental Protection," Rossi said.

For Johnson, the next step is for the town to complete a developmental study of the southwest section. "That is still the most rural, least developed part of the town. It is zoned entirely as agricultural and residential land," he explained.

Such an examination would determine the potential for growth in the area — how many more homes could result and in turn, how many more students would enter the school system — are just some of the considerations the study would define. Overall, the research would define the implications of rapid development in the area on the well being of the town.

The motion remains dormant until more information is gathered regarding the financial and developmental repercussions of Phase II.