Sewer project betterment bills a shock for some Lochmere residents
July 22, 2009
TILTON — A betterment bill for the cost of constructing the Lochmere sewer was mailed out last week, and while some residents of that area knew it was coming, others were surprised to find out that they'll be paying hundreds of dollars to the town each year for the next 30 years to cover the cost of the loan.
The Lochmere Sewer Project was completed in May. At that time, all residents of the project area were given permission to hook up to the line, though it is not a requirement.
"We're trying to protect the water," said Johanna Ames, assistant to the Sewer Commission. "We would love to get everybody that's anywhere near the water on (town sewer)."
Though residents agreed through a 2/3 majority vote at Town Meeting several years back that those affected by the project would pay its cost, many of the 221 residents who just received bills are calling Town Hall and asking why they have to pay. The number of calls prompted the commissioners to post answers to frequently asked questions on the town Web site.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook," Ames said. "People don't understand that (the bill covers) the cost of the project, not whether you're hooked up (to the sewer line)."
The sewer commissioners adopted the betterment assessment formula for repayment in March.
It is a 60/40 combination of a flat rate and assessed valuation for each parcel within the Lochmere Sewer Project. The flat rate is $327 per parcel, which is the amount of the bill just sent out, while the bill sent out in December will be approximately $1.16 per $1,000 of property valuation (this rate will adjust as property valuations adjust).
Although the issue was voted on at Town Meeting and reported in newspapers, and the town held public hearings and sent out letters to Lochmere project residents informing them of the betterment charges, Ames said several people have claimed to know nothing about it.
"You always have the people who say, 'Well, I don't get the paper,'" she said.
Resident Patricia Donovan said she was expecting the bill, having voted for the project at Town Meeting, but she wasn't expecting the amount.
"I thought it was going to be $200 a year," said Donovan, who will actually wind up paying closer to $500 a year. "I'm not really happy about it, but I think we needed the sewerage."
On the FAQ fact sheet online, one of the questions asks whether residents who got the bill but aren't hooked up to the sewer have to pay. As Ames explained, the bill is based on the ability to hook up to the sewer and is used to pay back the cost of the project. Residents like Donovan who are hooked up receive a separate usage bill from the Tilton Sewer Commission, as well as the betterments. Usage fees are 2.5 cents per cubic foot or a flat rate of $57 per quarter.
The FAQ sheet also explains to people who didn't want the project in the first place that the Sewer Commission can legally install sewer lines where they deem a need with a majority vote plus one. This project received support from more than 2/3 of the affected residents.
The total payback amount for the town is $154,444 per year, for a USRDA loan of $2,552,000. The total project cost as of Jan. 27 was $4,924,214. A grant in the amount of $1,999,690 does not have to be repaid, and $27,477 has been rolled over from the last sewer project to go toward this one.
A state aid grant that would pay 20 percent of eligible costs, which Ames said the commissioners were told the project was eligible for, is in limbo right now.
"I'm hopeful," Ames said, "but I don't think we're going to see it anytime soon."
Rather than tacking those costs back on and handing them down to residents, the commissioners are using monies from their reserve fund.
"There are people whose biggest concern is how are they going to pay for it," Ames said of the bills.
The bills are sent out through the tax collector's office. Although Tax Collector Cindy Reinartz can't waive interest fees, she can help residents come up with a payment plan.
"I'll take whatever they can pay me," Reinartz said.
For residents who haven't yet hooked up to the new sewer line but want to, you need to hire a contractor who will bring the line from the stub that was brought up to your property line during the project to your house. Ames suggested calling around and "doing your homework," because she's heard prices that have been "all over the map" recently. There is no application fee to hook up to the town line, but once on, you will start to receive quarterly usage bills.
Because of new laws enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency, if residents continue to use their septic system and it fails, they cannot replace it and will have to hook up to the town line.