Downtown Sewer Deadline Pushed To March 2025

by Ryan Bray
Assistant Water Superintendent Susan Brown, left, and Health Agent Alex Fitch address the board of health and the board of water and sewer commissioners Feb. 28 about issues with downtown sewer connections.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Assistant Water Superintendent Susan Brown, left, and Health Agent Alex Fitch address the board of health and the board of water and sewer commissioners Feb. 28 about issues with downtown sewer connections. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Downtown property owners now have an extra year in which to connect to town sewer.

The board of health voted during a joint meeting with the board of water and sewer commissioners Feb. 28 to move the deadline for phase one connections out to March 16, 2025.

“We’re hopeful that will be enough time for people to get organized,” Alex Fitch, the town’s health agent, said by phone following the joint meeting.

The vote came as connections are lagging ahead of what was an impending March 16 deadline for the phase one connections. Fitch said as of Feb. 27, only 61 of the 302 properties in the downtown sewer area had tied into the sewer system, which feeds into the town’s wastewater treatment facility on Overland Way.

Numerous letters have been sent to downtown property owners since March 2023 informing them of the need to connect. But demand for engineers and contractors to plan and make sewer connections is high, which Fitch said has made it difficult for many people to make their connections on time.

“If a property owner calls an engineer, they’re booking six months out,” she said.

Assistant Water Superintendent Susan Brown told health and sewer officials that for others, affordability has played into their inability to connect to sewer.

The vote to push the connection deadline comes just weeks after the board of health and sewer commissioners voted to adopt a deferral process that would give an extra six months to connect to those property owners that applied. That process has been abandoned with approval of the new deadline, Fitch said.

While some property owners are in the process of connecting to sewer, Fitch said during the Feb. 28 joint hearing that there are 133 property owners who have not been in contact with the town at all about making their connections.

Town Manager Kim Newman said last week that during a recent meeting with Fitch, Brown and Town Counsel Michael Ford, it became apparent that additional measures were needed to better help people make their connections.

“We basically mandated that you do a thing,” she said. “We need you to do this thing and we set these parameters. But we didn’t give you enough tools to do it successfully. Now we want to help do that.”

With the new 2025 deadline, a new position is being created in town hall to help property owners with the process of making their sewer connections as needed. Newman told the select board Feb. 28 that the town plans to advertise for the position, which has a working title of water and sewer connections coordinator, in the coming weeks.

The town has a sewer ombudsman, Reggie Donahue. But while Donahue works primarily onsite to help contractors and customers with their connections, Newman said the proposed coordinator would be a point of contact in the health department for any and all sewer related questions or issues.

While the new coordinator wouldn’t necessarily have to be a sewer expert, Newman said a premium will be put on someone with good customer service skills.

“It’s not just someone answering the phone and then handing it off to somebody. It’s someone who answers and tells you [what you need to know],” she said.

Newman estimated that the salary for the new position would be $75,000 plus benefits. The position could be funded in the short term through money that is in the water department’s budget for an unfilled position, she told health and sewer officials Feb. 28.

“There are other funding options obviously for water and sewer that we can look at, so I feel very comfortable that this is a position that we could support,” she said.

Fitch said the new hire will be a welcome addition to the health department, where staff are busy with matters above and beyond ensuring that property owners make their sewer connections. With sewering to continue over the next 30-plus years in town, having that point of contact has great value, she said.

“This is the beginning of so many phases [of sewering],” she said. “So it will be good for future sewer phases too to have someone who can dedicate the time and energy to do that kind of outreach, education and facilitating.”

Concerns were raised during the Feb. 28 joint meeting about the financial impacts delaying the connection deadline will have for the town. Mark Berson of the board of water and sewer commissioners said the downtown connections are key to generating revenue through the new treatment plant, which went on line in March of last year.

“I see this as a systematic dysfunction of communication between all the parties, which probably will result in a shortage of flow to a multimillion-dollar treatment plant,” he said. “Which will require a shortfall, and where is that shortfall going to come from?”

Newman said there is $720,000 in “retained earnings” that can be used to address any shortfall that might come from the delayed connections, and that there could be more.

“We were aware of this issue even in the last week or so when we were preparing the budget, so I’ve already started sort of countering for a reduction in revenue,” Newman said.

While the road to connecting property owners has been rocky, Fitch said it’s best to work out procedural issues now with many more years and phases of sewer work to come.

“This is phase one, so the town is learning as we go about how to best serve the residents,” she said after the hearing. “What we’re hoping is to use this as a learning opportunity to better help people initiate the process and get connected, because that’s the goal.”

Property owners will have had two years to connect by March 2025, and officials expressed optimism that the additional time will lead to more connections. Water and sewer commissioner Alan McClennen added that the demand for sewer connections on the Cape could lead to more engineers and contractors becoming available to do the necessary work.

“I have a feeling that we’ll start seeing engineers beginning to assign people to this place,” he said. “Because Chatham needs it, Orleans needs it, Mashpee needs it, Hyannis is big time, they need it. There’s a business here that people can take advantage of. But we need to get over the hurdle.”

Those who fail to meet the connection deadline can be fined $250 a day for every day they are not in compliance. But officials reiterated that it is not their intention to penalize people with fines.

“We don’t want that,” Newman said. “What we want is to get everyone connected.”

Fitch last week said another mailing is due to go out to downtown property owners alerting them to the new 2025 deadline. But she encouraged property owners not to take the additional time they’ve been given to connect for granted.

“Yes, there’s another year, but it takes time to get an engineer and hire an installer and all that,” she said. “So we want to encourage people to keep going if they’ve initiated the process.”

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