ORLEANS – Finance Director Cathy Doane said it best: “There isn't one particular method that seems to be across the board equitable for everyone.”
That ideal apportionment of betterment fees for construction of the downtown sewer collection system, among users as diverse as a commercial brewery and a two-bedroom condo, was not to be found.
At a selectmen's meeting last month, Doane reviewed four methods used to look at the betterment costs to downtown property owners, which would not include construction of a treatment plant and disposal site (these would be paid by all taxpayers): assigning sewer units (typically one per residential household, and one or more for businesses based on average water usage) or using building square footage, assessed value, or amount of wastewater generated.
Projected betterments – the amount to be paid following completion of the project over 30 years in exchange for the sewer's “betterment” of downtown properties – for residential properties averaged from a total of $10,071 (sewer units) to $6,552 (wastewater) and for non-residential $21,745 (wastewater) to $15,380 (sewer units).
Selectman Mefford Runyon rejected relying on wastewater usage. “The payment for high-flow users is going to be collected through operating expenses,” he said. “I think we should just work from the understanding that the pipe in the ground costs the same whether it's in front of a high user or low user, and not sort of double-kill that high user.”
Runyon was concerned about the effects of required payments on downtown's affordable housing. “I think the sewer unit is gonna have to become fractionalized at the lower end,” he said. “I think we have to assign less than one sewer unit to properties assessed at the lower end, at least residential properties.”
Saying that “I do kind of favor the assessed value approach,” Runyon said, “We've got to find a way to put in this model the cost of the hookups (from the sewer pipes) to the units. That's sure a lot easier said than done.”
Selectman David Currier, speaking from the floor as a private citizen, asked why owners of properties not being sewered couldn't help pay. “There's an ongoing discussion at the board of selectmen about cleaning up a pond,” he said. “That burden will (also) be carried by people outside that general area. Last week, we heard about a shortfall in ambulance receipts. The entire tax base picks that up...Here we're trying to protect the home values of people not being sewered. Wouldn't they want to kick in to protect their home values? I don't object.”
Barry Alper of the affordable housing committee admitted he was “a little confused. I never heard the residents or business owners of downtown saying this (betterments) is what they wanted. I voted for the project because it benefits the town to protect our waters and increase density. I don't understand the logic of betterment. It seems it should be spread over the town.”
Selectman Mark Mathison reached back a few years for some perspective.
“When I ran for the board, I had business people coming up to me saying they're willing to pay 90 percent of the sewer cost downtown,” he said. “It's amazing none of those people are here tonight.” After the laughter died down, Mathison said, “Everyone in town, through the tax rate, will pay for the treatment plant and the disposal (site) well, and those who get tied up to it pay for pipes in the ground. Unless somebody wants to fight this fight all over again, we need to focus on how to most equitably apportion this benefit to those who are going to use it.”
“We have discovered some inequities,” said Selectmen Chair Alan McClennen. “We have known about them and shown them, (such as) people who are very high users of water who don't send the water into this sewer system but out in cans and bottles and other things like that. We've also learned, and this is critically important, that we have almost 500 two-bedroom condominium units in this district. What we heard tonight (was) 'Don't inadvertently adopt a betterment bylaw that works against our goal of providing affordable housing in the town of Orleans.' The majority of affordable housing today and in the future is in this very district we're talking about sewering.”
The board voted unanimously (minus Currier, who recuses himself on these matters as a downtown property owner) to discard the wastewater and square footage methods and focus on sewer units and assessed values. Runyon asked that further work be done on creating fractional sewer units with an eye to a tiered approach of assigning costs.