Bridgton voters reject sewer ordinance; board chairman reacts

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton voters on Tuesday rejected proposed amendments to the sewer ordinance, voting 575 to 424 against making any changes to the current individual flow-based sewer rate structure.

The vote surely comes as a blow to the Board of Selectmen, who were poised to submit engineering reports this month as the first step in securing state and federal grant funds for a sewer expansion. The change to an equivalent user system were needed in order to assure that the debt service and operational and maintenance costs for an expanded system would be covered by both existing and potential future users, as required under the funding guidelines.

The board and the Wastewater Committee saw the current flow-based system as being antiquated and unfair, giving a free pass to property owners with buildings generating no flow either because they are vacant or on a private system. They might not be using the sewer, but their property values benefit by virtue of it being there, they said.

Worse still, according to the board, the current allocation-based system was placing a stranglehold on development because all but 600 gallons per day of available allocation were already tied up by the 73 users who had purchased a set amount of capacity, even though in many cases they weren’t using all of it. In reality, between 2,000 to 3,000 gallons per day of capacity exist, but under the current system it cannot be sold by the town for new development.

Selectmen lobbied hard for the changes for months up to the vote, but were seen as coming up short in terms of explaining to individual users now on the system how the new rate structure would work. A group of Main Street business property owners, led by Chuck Hamaty of Main Street Graphics, came forward after the public hearing to urge a “No” vote in order to give residents more time to understand, ask questions and get answers about what they were voting on.

In a large ad in the News, they argued that many voters weren’t aware that the new ordinance would assess a “readiness to serve” fee to all property owners on the sewer line, whether they are hooked into the system or not. They also didn’t think voters realized that most of the side streets to Main Street would be included in an expanded system, and that those property owners as well would be assessed a “readiness to serve” fee when the system was expanded.

In short, “There are too many unanswered questions to vote on this important issue now,” stated the ad, paid for by the Bridgton Sewer User’s Group.

When selectmen voted to hold a November referendum on the ordinance amendments, member Greg Watkins had openly wondered whether it made sense to also conduct a straw poll to see if residents supported pursuing a sewer expansion. A majority of the board felt then that they and the Wastewater Committee had done their best to explain why the changes were needed. They noted that there would be ample opportunity for public discussion in the planning phase for the expanded sewer line, proposed to extend along Portland Road to Sandy Creek Road to South High Street and back to Main Street.

Bridgton Sewer User’s Group member Kip Foster said he and other members of the group are ready to “roll up their sleeves and fully get involved” in crafting “a better ordinance that will be productive for the town, and people will understand it.” He suggested another vote could then be taken next June.

King reacts to vote

Board Chairman Bernie King was very disappointed by Tuesday’s sewer ordinance amendments vote, but it didn’t come as a surprise.

“People basically don’t trust government,” he said. After spending a couple hours Saturday at the transfer station talking to residents, “The one word that kept popping up was expansion,” even though Tuesday’s question dealt only with the ordinance governing the current system and its users.

“In retrospect we should’ve started the education sooner,” said King. While enormous effort went into writing the amendments — by himself, Town Manager Bob Peabody, Wastewater Committee members and others — efforts at educating the public, he said, “were a day late and a dollar short.”

King was especially upset that the opponents’ ad suggested that a sewer expansion was a done deal and it would “cost over $23 million,” which he said is a “total lie.” Selectmen have never suggested going forward with an expansion without securing funding promises for a significant portion of the total cost. And until engineering studies are done it is not possible to estimate what the project will cost.

King wants residents to know that “Right now, the no votes have basically shut the town down. We won’t be able to have any more growth” until the current rate structure is changed. “On paper, it shows that we are basically shut down,” he said.

 

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