Million-gallon-a-year mistake uncovered

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

It wasn’t anything nearly as serious as a smoking gun.

But the discovery of a million-gallon-per-year mistake by Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz in totaling sold sewer allocations for the lower ballfield raised some eyebrows last week — and revealed a sewer picture that is neither rosy nor sweet-smelling.

Sewer Committee member Glen “Bear” Zaidman took his findings directly to selectmen last week, and Berkowitz acknowledged the calculation error two days later. He said he inadvertently left out the allocation totals for five sewer accounts served by the lower ballfield — making it appear that the field had enough excess capacity to take care of effluent from Avesta Housing, Inc.’s proposed 21-unit apartment complex.

The correct totals, as compiled by Zaidman, paint a different picture. They show that the lower ballfield has no excess capacity, and is in fact 37 gallons a day over the maximum of what engineers say is the most it can handle in terms of approved allocations. “The town could be liable,” he added, if it ends up agreeing to something it can’t live up to. Some businesses are using more allocation than they were approved for as it is, he added; saying those users should take priority over new allocation requests.

“The bottom line is, there is no available allocation at this time for any additional requests for allocation related to the lower ballfield,” said Berkowitz, who said the error happened when he was compiling and transferring numbers gathered from several sources into an Excel spreadsheet.

“The intent all along has been to make sure we are dealing with numbers that are accurate,” he said. It wasn’t until the town installed an Oxy-Pro unit at the lower ballfield that they were able to measure actual daily usage, using flow meter reports. In transferring a page of figures from an original sheet of sold allocations, Berkowitz said he failed to include the formula needed for the numbers to be included in the annual totals. Left out were approved allocations for 1 Green Street, 268-272 Main Street, 3 Chase Street, 240 Main Street and 411 Main Street. All totalled, that’s 1,031,125 less gallons of effluent annually, or 37 gallons a day.

“Maybe somebody is making maple syrup, and using the evaporator to vaporize one million, thirty thousand-plus gallons a year,” Zaidman quipped, as he read from a prepared statement.

Avesta offer rescinded; all options expensive

The Sewer Committee met Thursday and agreed to rescind its earlier conditional approval of what Avesta Project Manager Matt Peters called an “exploratory request” for a sewer allocation at 247 Main Street, the former Chapter 11 property. The Board of Selectmen will vote at its April 10 meeting on the committee’s recommendation to put on hold all requests for sewer allocations that are served or could be served by the lower ballfield, Berkowitz said. The town has 36 such accounts, but not all of them are currently hooked into the system.

“From the perspective of community and economic development, the fact that we’ve got a hold on half of our town is a concern to me,” he said. “Anytime you’ve got that kind of constraint, it prompts us to find a solution as soon as possible.”

Avesta has yet to submit formal plans for the project, and does not yet own the property, as is required for requesting a sewer allocation. For 23 bedrooms (19 one-bedroom apartments and 2 two-bedroom apartments), the project would require a net allocation of 2,415 gallons a day, after the 225 gallons a day that’s been already allocated is subtracted out.

“Right now, we don’t have the capacity to support that kind of development” by allowing it to hook into the sewer system, Berkowitz said Friday. “I have to now notify Avesta, and they will have to recapitulate” their plans and decide if they will continue moving forward with the project. If so, they have several options, Berkowitz said.

Avesta could build its own sewer processing system onsite, perhaps under the parking lot or common green space. Or, the housing agency could help the town pay for capacity improvements to the lower ballfield or in developing a new septic field, perhaps on the Kansas Road.

“Any option is expensive,” and may prove too expensive for the developers and their investors, Berkowitz said. “I hate to say it, but effluent isn’t cheap.” A solution that costs around $100,000 may qualify for funding under Community Development Block Grant programs for expansion of infrastructure, he said. But a more expensive solution of $500,000 or so will likely require some town borrowing of funds, in combination with grants and private investment.

Peters said Monday he hadn’t yet heard from Berkowitz about the constraint on sewer allocations, but remained optimistic the agency will still be able to create housing on the site to serve the needs of low income elderly and disabled persons. “We’ll work through our design process and come up with an economically viable solution” to solving the sewer issue, he said.

Peters said Avesta has not yet submitted formal plans because it is still assessing the impact on their project of a proposed June amendment to the Site Plan Review Ordinance, requiring that the ground floor be used for retail, office, business or professional use. The federal Housing and Urban Development funds that have been approved for the $4 million project must be spent sometime this year, however. And that funding was approved based on the project being located at 247 Main Street, and not elsewhere in the downtown, he said.

Peters said the agency has held informational meetings in project towns in the past, saying, “We’re not opposed to doing it in Bridgton.” No decision has been made on holding such a meeting, however.

Regardless of what Avesta decides, the town now knows there can be no further sewer allocations on Main Street, from the Methodist Church to Pondicherry Square. “We tried to head this off” by investing in an Inflow and Infiltration Study and installing the Oxy-Pro unit to assist in moving solids through the system more efficiently, Berkowitz said. “We were just not quick enough” to keep the system from reaching its limit,” he said. “It’s the realities of what we deal with, because we’re a small system.”

The Sewer Committee, meeting with the Community Development Committee, needs to start investigating the most cost-effective options to build more capacity in the system, Berkowitz said. The Sewer Committee will begin exploring those options at its next meeting on Thursday, April 12, at 6 p.m. Its members are Zaidman, Ken Brown, Ray Turner, Chris McDaniel and Mark Hatch, working with Berkowitz and Public Works Director Jim Kidder.

Questioning the numbers

Zaidman hired two accountants, Chuck Renneker and Norm Huntress, to review the compilation of sold allocations, and came up with a total of 12,703 gallons a day at the lower ballfield, 37 gallons a day over the engineers agreed-upon 12,666 gallon-per-day capacity. The agreed-upon capacity of the town’s other field, Dodge Field, is 18,180 gallons a day, for a grand total of 30,833 gallons a day for the entire system.

“I said, ‘This is easy,’” said Zaidman. “We need to find out who has bought allocations,” and then calculate those allocations against the agreed-to field capacity. The records were contained in several different departments at the municipal complex. “Nowhere was it all compiled in one place,” Zaidman said.

Ever since his appointment to the Sewer Committee last October, Zaidman has questioned assurances made by former Economic and Community Development Director Alan Manoian that around 15,000 gallons a day were available for allocation at the lower ballfield. Manoian used those assurances in promoting voter approval of a Shoreland Zoning amendment significantly reducing minimum lot sizes around Pondicherry Square and designed to allow Avesta’s plans there to move forward.

Zaidman’s suspicions that Manoian was over-estimating the lower ballfield’s available sewer capacity were validated when George Sawyer, the engineer who designed the system in 1982, wrote Berkowitz to call attention to “a definite error” in estimates made by Wright-Pierce Engineering. The two sides met to reconcile the numbers, and came up with an agreed-to capacity of 12,666 gallons per day.

“I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but it seems pretty strange” that the top five sewer user accounts weren’t included in Berkowitz’s calculations, Zaidman said, in a Monday interview at Camp Wildwood, where he is caretaker of grounds including a modern irrigation sewer system. “I’ll let the people decide, whether this was an innocent mistake, or a manipulated mistake.”

Wright-Pierce used the calculations for sewer capacity listed in the town’s 2007 Waste Disposal License application to the DEP.

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