Chatham Selectmen Mull Delaying Wastewater Pact Article

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Wastewater treatment , Municipal Finance

Acknowledging that their draft wastewater agreement with Harwich is a complex, weighty document, some Chatham selectmen are floating the possibility of deferring action until a special town meeting in the summer or fall, rather than seeking approval at the May annual town meeting.

The board will likely make a decision at its March 14 meeting, but several people at their Feb. 28 session raised the possibly of delaying the town meeting article to allow for a deeper exploration of some of the provisions in the draft inter-municipal agreement (IMA). The pact allows Harwich to use some of Chatham's wastewater treatment capacity rather than having to build its own treatment plant, in exchange for payments totaling $6.765 million.

Following two years of negotiations, a subcommittee of officials from both towns announced the draft agreement last month, with the goal of putting it before voters in May for a decision. Members of the subcommittee described the agreement as beneficial to both towns. But Chatham Selectman Seth Taylor produced a six-page analysis critical of the agreement, raising questions about each town's liability for breaks in the sewer line from Harwich to Chatham. He also questioned whether the Chatham plant might need to be expanded ahead of schedule given the additional flow from Harwich.

In last week's meeting, Taylor also questioned whether Chatham drove a hard enough bargain in the talks. He said he believes it would cost Harwich more than $12.5 million to build their own wastewater plant, not counting costs associated with bonding the project. Chatham is providing an additional break by allowing Harwich to make its $6.765 million in payments over time.

“It's like going to buy a car and getting interest-free payments for 10 years,” Taylor said. If Chatham were to receive a one-time lump sum payment, it could put all of the money into the OPEB (other post-employment benefits) Trust Fund to pay down the town's massive liability for retirees' benefits.

“We got in on this plant early. We took the initiative,” Taylor said. “And it came with some benefits. I'm not sure why Harwich gets the starting point of our benefits.”

Chatham board member Dean Nicastro, a member of the subcommittee along with Chairman Jeffrey Dykens, said the terms of the agreement are the best ones they could negotiate for Chatham, and the proposal should be brought to town meeting.

“If they think it's a bad deal, they'll vote it down,” Dykens added.

Chatham resident Norman Pacun voiced concerns about the wording of the town meeting article, and resident Gloria Freeman proposed waiting until the summer or the fall to bring the article forward.

“There are questions. There are concerns,” she said. “It might be better to give some period of time educating the public about it.”

Nicastro said that, from Chatham's perspective, deferring the article is “probably not a big deal.” Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said that Harwich might need to adjust the timeline for their wastewater plan or rearrange their capital plan to accommodate a delay. But he said the draft agreement is still capable of being modified.

“I think we need to have a good agreement that's going to have the support of the communities,” he said.

Speaking to The Chronicle this week, Dykens said he still favors moving ahead with an article for the May annual town meeting. He predicted that voters in both towns will ultimately support the agreement. Selectmen from both towns have the power to approve the wastewater pact without town meeting approval, but they won't do so, Dykens said.

“We feel as though we want the towns to be involved and to be in agreement,” he said.

Harwich Town Administrator Christopher Clark said it is no surprise that not all selectmen agree on the wastewater pact.

“It was always my sense from the negotiations that Harwich would most likely be a unanimous vote, and in Chatham it would probably be a split vote,” he said.

Should Chatham decide to postpone bringing the measure to town meeting, Clark said he would recommend that the matter still be brought to Harwich voters in the spring. If Harwich voters approve it at town meeting and provide the funding at a subsequent election, the borrowing authorization would simply wait.

“It's approved and ready to go, and selectmen would sign it once it's squared away,” Clark said.