Pittsfield City Council authorizes $74 million wastewater project

PITTSFIELD — "It's a tough pill to swallow," Ward 3 Councilor Nick Caccamo said.

It was a familiar refrain during Tuesday's City Council meeting, during which councilors voted to authorize $74 million for a wastewater project required by the Environmental Protection Agency. Residents will likely see their annual sewer bills triple over the next few years as a result of the project.

"No one wants to eat this bullet," said Councilor At Large Earl Persip.

Still, he said, the EPA deadline of Aug. 1 looms, and "we're kind of stuck with that."

The issue dates to 2008, when the EPA set new limits on the amounts of aluminum and phosphorus — and later, nitrogen — that wastewater treatment plants can discharge into rivers. Officials have said that existing equipment at the city's plant on Holmes Road cannot accommodate the revised effluent limits.

Since the borrowing measure failed during its first reading, in February, Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo, Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi maintained their votes against the project. Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers reversed hers, giving the project enough votes to pass.

The bottom line, Rivers said, is that the city is 10 years into discussing this project and the time for alternative solutions is over.

"The time for that conversation was before me," she said, and the EPA promises fines for violating a federal mandate. "Fines will go to the taxpayers. I don't know if I'm willing to gamble with that money."

Alexandra Dunn, the EPA's regional administrator of New England, visited Pittsfield this month. Despite changes in leadership at the agency, Dunn said her office is committed to upholding the rule of law in this situation.

"We commend the City of Pittsfield for taking this positive step forward and appreciate the responsiveness of the Council," Dunn said Wednesday, in a statement to The Eagle. "We look forward to working with the city and the commonwealth on these important projects for Pittsfield's clean water future."

During the meeting, Finance Director Matt Kerwood presented estimated impacts on sewer rates. Owners of the average two-toilet home currently pay $248 a year in sewer bills — the cheapest in the state, officials said. With the addition of the wastewater treatment overhaul, Kerwood said that amount likely would increase to $347 in the coming fiscal year, $463 in fiscal year 2020, and $549 in fiscal year 2021. By fiscal year 2024, the same bill, it is estimated, would rise to $642.

Councilors agreed that few are happy about the price tag — "It's not a sexy project," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol — but there's no getting around it at this point.

Mazzeo said she couldn't approve the project with unanswered questions about how the city's appeal process was handled. Morandi said rising rates are too high for many residents to float.

"This is something that our residents are really going to struggle with," he said.

Connell said he couldn't vote for the project because he felt strongly that moving the wastewater system to a public-private partnership would have mitigated the financial blow.

"You're going to see a lot of houses up for sale," he said. "I've done whatever I could."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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