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New ordinances could further sewer extension

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM Another long awaited capital improvement project may be one step closer to construction prior to Mayor Richard Cohen's departure from office this January. Approximately 900 residents in Feeding Hills have been operating their homes with failing septic systems for decades awaiting the 18.2-mile extension of the town's sewer system into their neighborhoods.

Two ordinances proposed before the City Council, if approved, would create a "Special Sewer Improvement District," outline the costs for homeowners and the town for this $31.2 million project and create an "Enterprise Fund" for wastewater operation.

In conjunction with the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Ad Hoc Sewer Committee, Cohen said he has been working on this project since the beginning of his administration, adding that the most pressing obstacle has always been funding. Regardless of the price tag, Cohen said the sewer extension is greatly needed to maintain the "health and well being" of those in Feeding Hills.

According to John Stone, superintendent of Public Works, since the 1980's the construction of new sewer systems have been funded by sewer use charges and grants. However, Stone said the town does not qualify for any grants or other assistance, therefore making the town and its residents liable for all costs.

Stone explained that as per the current ordinance the sewer use charge approved in 2004 is $2 for every 100 cubic feet of water consumed per household or business. Stone's calculations therefore project a household contribution of $4,352, with a total cost of $24,046 per unit.

"The sewer rate payer obviously cannot absorb the impact of such a major project nor can the property tax," Stone wrote in a letter to Cohen last month in which he outlined the changes needed to further the sewer extension project.

If the new ordinances are passed, therefore creating the "Sewer Improvement District," the total cost per household or business would be $19,650, which may be paid over a 20 year period. Additionally, the sewer use charge would increase between 70 and 85 cents.

According to Stone, an enterprise fund would also be established, which "would allow the revenues the wastewater operation receives to be retained to meet expenses, particularly principal and interest payments on debt."

"If people are thinking in the future, even though it sounds expensive it is in their best interests," Stone said, adding that quality of life would improve and residents would not have to pay for repairs. Maintenance and replacement of septic systems are the responsibility of each home or business owner, while sewer maintenance is the town's responsibility.

But for City Councilors Joseph Mineo, chair of the Ad Hoc Sewer Committee and Cecilia Calabrese, chair of the Finance Committee, the cost of the sewer extension project may be too high for a favorable vote.

Mineo said he had been working for a much lower cost per household keeping in mind those residents living on fixed incomes. He added that his committee referred the proposals to the Finance Committee for review at their meeting on Dec. 17.

Calabrese said her committee will conduct a cost-benefit analysis to conclude if the project is in the best interests of the town. She added that she believes the majority of residents in Feeding Hills are for the sewer extension in order to ensure that raw sewage is no longer being deposited into the ground from failed septic systems.

"I've always got the feeling that it's something that the people really want," Calabrese said. "Some people just bit the bullet for a new septic system and that's what we really need to flush out. Is this something that there is a strong enough need for? The need is there but is the want strong enough to pay for it?"