Touisset residents: Drop sewer tax, instate fee
Residents say they are unfairly being charged for system they do not use
Touisset residents want the town to drop its system of paying for Warren’s wastewater treatment services through taxation, saying a town-wide sewer use fee makes much more sense and would relieve them of the financial burden of subsidizing a system they do not use.
The request, made at last month’s first municipal budget hearing, comes on the heels of voters’ approval last November of a $20 million upgrade to Warren’s wastewater treatment facility on Water Street. Finance director Michael Abbruzzi estimates that once Warren starts repaying the project’s bonds next year, the upgrades will cost homeowners an extra $1.28 per $1,000 of valuation — a $384 tax increase for the owner of a $300,000 home.
Touisset residents who are not connected to the town’s sewer system say it’s unfair for the town to charge them that tax. Much more equitable, they believe, is a fee system that charges home and business owners based on the amount of water they use. That is a good determining factor of how much utility they are getting out of the wastewater treatment plant, they said.
“I think what people (in Touisset) are essentially saying, ‘Let’s develop a fair and equitable system,’” said Fred Massie, a Brownell Street resident and member of the Touisset Residents’ Group (TRG).
The current system “is based on property value and does not take any use into consideration,” Mr. Massie said. “That’s the crucial element here; the best way to measure (usage) is by water usage. The fact is many residents throughout Warren are currently paying more than their fair share of sewer costs, so moving to a use-based fee system would actually benefit a broader range of residents regardless of where they live in town. ”
Currently, Warren is the only municipality out of 30 in the state with sewage plants that uses a taxing system to pay wastewater costs. All 29 others use a sewer use fee. At last month’s first town budget hearing, the TRG founder Tim Hays formally requested that the town look into shifting to the fee system.
“The town’s current practice” of funding wastewater costs through taxes “is unjust to all Warren residents,” he said.
It now appears that the residents’ request will get some traction once the town council starts going over the budget next month. Councilor Steve Thompson said he would like to see a usage fee financial analysis done before he makes up his mind. But overall, he said, the request seems to have some merit:
“I do think a usage-based process is the fairest approach, but we have to understand what the impact is on the community,” he said. “One of the issues that’s come up is (under a fee system) there can be a more significant shift of responsibility to businesses” as they tend to use more water than homeowners.
“We need to be careful about that, but I would like to see some actual numbers; we can’t make decisions based on estimates.”
Talk of shifting the town’s funding system is not new. Touisset residents have complained for years that they are being taxed unfairly and while town officials have acknowledged in the past that there are some inequities in the system, Warren Town Manager Jan Reitsma said Warren is trying to be fair to homeowners in Touisset and elsewhere, who are not tied into the sewer system.
“We’re certainly aware that there’s a segment of the population that’s unhappy,” he said. “In general it’s understandable.”
However, he said, the town does try to take care of those residents through a variety of means, including offering up to two free pumpouts per year and giving them access to a state revolving loan that offers low interest loans for residents who want to install onsite wastewater systems. He acknowledges though that Warren has not done a great job letting people know about that program. In the time Warren was without a full-time planner, he said, “a lot of things fell through the cracks.”
“We’re now trying to make up for lost time; I don’t know how good a job the town has done telling people” about the loan fund.
As for switching to a fee-based system, he said he is wary of the shift of financial burden:
“We’re trying to do more for Touisset. But there are several (residents) who are very adamant that they should’t have to pay for the sewering. I don’t quite agree with that, but if I did agree, we would have to come up with (an analysis of) the fiscal ramifications. The charges would go down for them, but the flip side is, the charge would go up significantly for others throughout town.”
The council is expected to begin discussions on the wastewater situation once Mr. Reitsma delivers his budget proposal to members later this month.