ORLEANS — The board of selectmen and the finance committee are on the same page heading into the Oct. 16 special town meeting, with favorable recommendations on water quality projects, HVAC upgrades to the elementary school, and other articles. But not all of last week's votes were unanimous.
Majorities of both boards agreed that the town should spend $3.68 million to put in the core of the downtown sewer system while the state Department of Transportation has the intersections of routes 6A and 28 dug up for an improvement project. The finance committee voted that the selectmen's request to negotiate a lease with the state to use the Exit 12 cloverleaf as a discharge site for treated wastewater had no financial significance at this time.
The boards recommended spending $94,000 to complete the three-year Lonnie's Pond nitrogen-removal-by-aquaculture project, and $75,000 for an independent review of AECOM's 25 percent design of the downtown sewer collection, treatment, and disposal system.
Both boards were unanimous in recommending spending $600,000 to replace the HVAC system and boiler plant at Orleans Elementary School. That item will appear as a debt exclusion vote on the Oct. 24 election, as will the $3.68 million for downtown sewer work.
The latter was the most contentious item when the selectmen met April 13 and the finance committee April 14 to make their recommendations. Selectman Mark Mathison opposed recommending the sewer measure; on the finance committee, Peter O'Meara voted against the recommendation and Lynn Bruneau and Roger Pearson abstained. The votes to recommend were 3-1-0 (selectmen) and 4-1-2 (finance committee); Selectman David Currier, who owns two businesses in the area, is sitting out downtown wastewater votes to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Mathison did vote to put the sewer project on the ballot for a debt exclusion vote, a step which required unanimous action by the members voting.
“The documents we have been working on for the last two and a half years with AECOM have taken what (was to be) a $247 million traditional sewer system down to about $67 million in traditional sewering for Meetinghouse Pond and downtown,” Selectman Alan McClennen said. “I believe the current numbers for downtown Orleans are $40 million to $44 million, split between collection, treatment and disposal, with collection between $18 million and $20 million. What we're talking about is the spine of the downtown collection system. In that spine, we're talking about the basic elements of whatever hybrid system we use downtown no matter what (kinds of collection systems might be used elsewhere).”
McClennen said failure to act now would require waiting five years after the state project is completed to be allowed to dig up the road again. He noted that Town Meeting had voted overwhelmingly to appropriate $552,000 for downtown sidewalks, granite curbing, and other elements not in the state plan that the town will construct soon, much of which would have to be torn up to begin sewer construction if that is not done now. “Let the voters make the decision whether this is a good or bad idea,” he said.
Mathison said he wouldn't stand in the way of letting the voters decide, but he said the town is as yet unable to tell downtown customers what it will cost to hook up to the sewer in that section. “These kinds of things should be clearer,” he said. “As an intelligent voter, I want to have the information so we can have a clear understanding of benefits and costs.”
“I don't think this Town Meeting is where all those questions can expect to be answered,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said. “That's why the other article (the independent review of AECOM's 25 percent design) is here to try to get a better handle on all those questions before May.”
At the finance committee meeting Sept. 14, O'Meara raised the point about property owners voting to put in a system without knowing the costs of hooking up. “What you're dealing with is betterments,” said McClennen, who attended as the selectmen's liaison to the committee. “Under state law, you cannot set betterments until the project is finished. In two to three years, when the costs come in, the town will figure it out.”
“Regardless of what the law is, people would like to know that number,” O'Meara said. “I'm hearing from a lot of people who want to know what the cost is.”
Finance Director Cathy Doane told the committee she is working with AECOM to develop an improved financial model that will include best-case and worst-case scenarios for betterment payments for hooking into the town's wastewater system. She said she expects to have that information for selectmen by January. “Unfortunately, this particular article is a timing issue,” she said. “If this part of the project doesn't get done now, it delays the whole thing another five years (as far as) moving forward with any construction of the collection system. This is the backbone.”
Bruneau said she didn't agree. “I don't understand why you couldn't put a shovel in the ground elsewhere (during) those five years,” she said.
“This is the main part of the system,” said the committee's Robert Renn. “Clearly, there's going to be another review regarding the entire design aspect. This decision needs to be taken now.”