Our View: Don’t Let Grinder Pumps Derail Wastewater Plan

by The Cape Cod Chronicle

How do you get a fiscally conservative community to agree to spend $300 million on a wastewater management plan? It’s no small feat. But it was done based on a simple principle: equity.

Whether they own property deep in the woods of South Chatham or right on the beach, Chatham residents have a clear interest in maintaining the town’s water quality. Citizens all over town enjoy swimming and boating, they eat local seafood and drink tap water, and they enjoy high property values based on the desirability of being close to the ocean. So in an inspired political move, the town opted to pay for the 30-year sewer system expansion using property taxes rather than betterments. Everyone benefits, everyone pays.

The issue of grinder pumps challenges that equity. Because of a whim of topography, one property owner might be on the hook for $15,000 or more, over and above what a neighbor on a gravity feed might pay to connect to the sewer. Grinder pumps are needed for connections to low-pressure sewer mains, which can be installed at a shallower depth than gravity mains. That means that residents of some neighborhoods have to pay more as individuals so that the town can reduce the taxpayer-borne sewer construction costs.

For a moment, set aside the ethics of that kind of inequity. Consider it from a political perspective. Chatham’s sewer system expansion is far from complete, and every few years, town officials ask voters to approve millions of dollars to fund the upcoming phases of the job. It’s work that simply must continue, but it could grind to a halt if voters refuse to write the next check. That would be an environmental tragedy, as well as a fiscal and legal one.

If you don’t think a small, vocal minority of voters can shape action at town meeting, then, well, you’ve never been to town meeting.

For the sake of equity and political expediency, we urge the water and sewer advisory committee and the select board to craft a policy that allows taxpayers to foot the bill for purchasing and maintaining grinder pumps. A careful fiscal examination will probably show that the cost of doing so is minimal when combined with the rest of the sewer project.

A final note: while Orleans may have a fairly small number of areas where grinder pumps are needed for its sewer, that may not be the case in Harwich, where the topography of the west side of town could mean that many homeowners end up relying on them. The same fiscal and political realities apply here, too.