PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Begrudgingly, the City Council approved a $74 million upgrade to the wastewater system that is estimated to more than double sewer bills within the next three years.
The city has been under an administrative order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the levels of phosphorous and aluminum in the water coming out of the plant. The project proposed by the consultants, Kleinfelder, also called for a nitrogen optimization process as well.
The issue dates back to 2008 when the city went to renew the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The EPA issued a permit with the higher levels to meet Clean Water Act standards. The city fought the issue in court but lost the appeals.
An administrative order was issued in 2015 demanding the city break ground on a project to meet those standards this August. In 2012, the city allocated $1 million toward the design and last March, added $4.9 million toward it to complete the engineering.
In January, Mayor Linda Tyer put forth an authorization request to borrow $74 million for the construction.
The council debated at length over the decision. In February, the authorization fell one vote shy of the supermajority needed to authorize the borrowing. Councilors Christopher Connell, Melissa Mazzeo, Kevin Morandi, and Donna Todd Rivers had all voted down the project.
On Tuesday, the council again spent hours discussing it after the mayor resubmitted the petition asking for authorization and ultimately, Rivers changed her vote. That now gives the administration the authority to move forward with the bonding.
"My no vote was about slowing down the process to allow more conversation, allow more research, and have the mayor meet again with the EPA," Rivers explained.
During the last three months or so, there had been many conversations and research throughout the community on the project.
Rivers said she doesn't like the history of the city's handling of the issue, does believe there could be a less costly option, and has some questions on the technology being proposed. But, she said all of those conversations were supposed to have been had before this moment.
"The time for that conversation was before me. Now I am here, right here right now, tonight," Rivers said.
And on Tuesday she said she wasn't going to "gamble" with taxpayer money with the threats of fines and continuing to fight the federal mandates.
"They pay their taxes honestly and they trust us to invest that money in things that will better their lives. For me, fines are a gamble," Rivers said.
And ultimately, the Ward 5 councilor said she wasn't going to do to future councilors and administrations what previous councils and administrations have done to her.
"The bottom line is, how could I sit here tonight and criticize them for kicking the can down the road and then kick it myself?"
That change swung the vote from being one short to making the supermajority for an affirmative action. The city will now begin the procurement process for the contracts.
Financially, the city will seek to secure a $50 million loan through the state's Clean Water Trust Fund. Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood said the state is expected to make another $24 million worth of low-interest loans available next year.
"We've been given reasonable assurances that the $24 million will be available next year," Kerwood said.
Kerwood said he worked with Tighe & Bond engineers to estimate what that will mean for the ratepayers. He said the estimates show the annual sewer bills -- which are separate from the water bills -- increasing from the current $61.93 quarterly to $137.36 per quarter for the average home with two toilets.
"The strategy would be to phase in the rates for the next three years," Kerwood said.
Kerwood said the wastewater enterprise fund is already facing a deficit that would call for a 40 percent hike -- or about $100 a year -- in rates anyway for next year. From there, the rates would increase evenly until 2021 when the debt payment begins.
Connell said those rate hikes is what he fears. Connell has been leading the charge in opposition to the project saying he felt the design and scope of the work could have been less to curb the sharpness of the increase.
"I saw this coming five years ago," Connell said.
He said he put forth concepts of public-private partnerships which could have brought costs down. But, ultimately, he was unsuccessful in getting momentum behind it.
"I just feel we could have saved the ratepayers money by going that route," he said, adding that it could have been less expensive, produced the same quality, and have "cut out some middlemen."
He said he believes the proposal put forth by Kleinfelder has "fat" in it that could have been cut through a different arrangement. But, ultimately, Connell's push to find a new type of project over the years did not gain traction.
"I've done whatever I could, personally, to try to make a difference for the ratepayers and the city," Connell said.
Councilor at Large Earl Persip, who is one of the newest members of the council, said the city had missed the opportunity to have conversations at that level.
"I think the time to question was way before this council and we are stuck with it," he said. "It is not a popular vote but by the information that I have, it is the right vote."
His sentiment was echoed by Ward 6 Councilor John Krol, who said rejecting the project wouldn't make it any less costly. He believes that the EPA would fine the city, and some strongly worded letters from the EPA suggests that, too, and ultimately the city would still be on the hook to make the upgrades. And by that time, Krol feels the price of the project will just increase.
"When it comes down to it, the idea that somehow you are doing a favor to the taxpayer by not doing something tonight is a false narrative. If we don't do anything tonight it is going to cost the taxpayer more," Krol said.
Morandi, however, said he is "proud" to be one of the three councilors to vote against the project. He said a lot of residents are struggling financially and the increase will be a huge burden to them. He said most of his constituents are concerned about staying in their homes with increased taxes and now increased fees.
He said he's willing to fight it all the way on behalf of those who will be footing the bill.
"I don't think we've done everything we should have done," Morandi said. "I took an oath to stick up for the residents in my ward."
Mazzeo, meanwhile, still wants to have a sit down with the EPA to attempt to negotiate the details. While the EPA did meet with Tyer, the four councilors who opposed the project weren't included in that discussion. Mazzeo was hoping for essentially a fresh start at handling the issue, starting with such a meeting to explain the city's current state.
"We never really had a fair shot at getting this done differently," Mazzeo said. "I wanted a sit down to negotiate, word for word, some of the terms."
She said she still doesn't have a clear understanding all of the issues surrounding this ongoing issues and she has learned in the past to not just blindly trust other city officials words.
But, after the vote total was clearer, Mazzeo saw that she was on the losing end this time and vowed to keep on top of the issue as it moves forward.
"I will watch this every step of the way and every piece of correspondence that comes through, I am going to ask to see it," she said.
For more information, read our prior stories on the topic below.