In votes early this week, selectmen in Harwich and Chatham threw their support behind a two-town partnership for wastewater treatment.
If endorsed by voters at each town's spring town meeting and at a subsequent ballot question in Harwich, the inter-municipal agreement calls for Harwich to pay Chatham $6,675,000 over seven years in exchange for providing a certain amount of treatment capacity at Chatham's wastewater plant.
Harwich selectmen unanimously endorsed the deal Monday, saying it mutually benefits both towns.
“The beauty is, Harwich won't have to build a plant” to treat wastewater from East Harwich, board member Peter Hughes said. Building a plant on their own would cost Harwich taxpayers somewhere between $12 million and $15 million, he said.
Chatham selectmen endorsed the agreement Tuesday evening on a 4-1 vote.
“I think it's a pretty good deal for the town,” said Selectman Dean Nicastro, a member of the subcommittee that negotiated the agreement.
The lone critic of the deal was Chatham Selectman Seth Taylor, who said the pact gives Harwich an unfair financial benefit. Taylor reasoned that Harwich stands to save at least $5.5 million over the cost of building their own plant, a discount of 44 percent.
“That basically is a grant. That's us, the town of Chatham, giving the town of Harwich a pass of $5.5 million,” he said. When it built the wastewater plant, Chatham received state grants that represented only about 33 percent of construction costs, he noted. That inequity “doesn't recognize the value of our asset,” Taylor said.
Nicastro said the talks with Harwich were a process of negotiation, and recent talks yielded some financial concessions. Harwich will be making its payments to Chatham over seven years instead of 10, and will make an upfront payment of $2,265,000 rather than $1.5 million. Chatham officials at first encouraged Harwich to base its payment on construction costs that included the construction grants that Chatham received, but the Harwich team balked.
“They would not budge on that,” Nicastro said. Instead, Harwich agreed to include Chatham's interest costs in its calculation. The deal isn't perfect, Nicastro said, but it is mutually beneficial.
“If we like the concept, this is the best deal we can get from the town of Harwich,” he said.
Selectman Cory Metters said he had hoped for a larger payment to Chatham, but “getting $7 million is nothing to sneeze at.” Metters said he is not sure how the agreement will be received by town meeting voters.
Board member Amanda Love said she believes the treated Harwich effluent should be returned to some part of Harwich for recharge into the groundwater. She also asked whether Harwich officials might consider sending their wastewater to a planned regional treatment center that would be shared with the towns of Dennis and Yarmouth. Natural resources director Robert Duncanson said he doesn't believe that's likely.
“Logistically and financially, I don't think that would be a good thing for them,” he said.
Chatham board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said the partnership makes sense for both towns and for the environment. It uses Chatham's excess treatment capacity and generates nearly $7 million “that we otherwise would not enjoy.” He said that both towns negotiated the terms of the agreement in good faith, and it would not be proper to backtrack now.
“You can throw darts at the number forever,” he said.
Larry Sampson, chairman of Chatham's water and sewer advisory committee, said the inter-municipal agreement is in the New England tradition of neighbors helping neighbors.
“If we have a terrible fire in this town in the next couple of years, our available inter-municipal water connection is with the town of Harwich,” he noted. “So we do depend on each other.”
The full text of the inter-municipal agreement is available on the towns' websites and printed copies will be distributed around town well in advance of town meeting, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said.
Harwich voters will face three wastewater-related ballot questions in May, including funds for the Chatham agreement, $9 million to build sewers in East Harwich and funds to clean up the Cold Brooks area. Chatham will address a $31 million funding question to cover the cost of sewers along the Route 137 corridor, including the connection with Harwich.