Tisbury drops sewer fee bombs
For Vineyard Haven property owners who live in the town's sewer district, it's time to pay the piper - or rather, pay for the pipes. Many downtown business owners and residents say the Tisbury selectmen's recent mailed announcement of betterment fees caught them by surprise, as did the sizable fees. Whether property owners who were entitled to hook up to the system did so or not, betterment fees were assessed.
"It was an $8 million project, so we've got $4 million in betterments we're sending out to a relatively small number of people by comparison, and some of them are pretty hefty - you can spread them out over 20 years," town treasurer Tim McLean said this week. "You know, I think some people were pumping out their old septic systems on a regular basis and may have forgotten they were paying a pretty good chunk of money just to pump their systems to keep them operating. And now they've had two years that they haven't had to pay that, and all of a sudden it's like sticker shock to them, because the bill is showing up."
Mr. McLean said he mailed out 215 betterment letters the first week in October.
"A lot of people forgot - there were a few new property owners that kind of knew about it, and I think a lot of people were hoping that it would just disappear somehow," Mr. McLean said. "When the letters first went out, I got a lot of calls the first two or three days. After that, though, it's been relatively quiet People are sending in their forms, they're sending in their checks, and they're paying the bills immediately."
Since the letters went out, Mr. McLean said about eight property owners have questioned their flow rates and asked to apply for abatements. He has asked the selectmen to come up with a process, and town counsel is looking into the legal issues, Mr. McLean said. Once a process is created, property owners will be able to request hearings. However, although usage fees may later be adjusted, once betterment fees are voted and assessed, they stand, he added.
"It's a fixed cost recovery and really has nothing to do with usage or anything else," Mr. McLean said. "Betterments are based on the design of system and what was assigned when it was built. Actual usage doesn't come into play at all as far as the betterments are concerned."
Mr. McLean said the engineers who designed the wastewater system looked at each property and assigned sewage flow rates, based on Title 5 requirements, according to use.
"So, based on those flows, I just took a worksheet and took all of the flows by property and assigned a percentage to it, and applied that to 50 percent of the cost," Mr. McLean explained. "That's exactly how the betterments were determined. I had nothing to do with whose flow was what; that was done by engineers."
Based on Title 5 formulas, rates for residential properties, for example, are 110 gallons per day per bedroom, which equates to $3,886 for every bedroom, he said. For commercial properties, though, the formulas become more complicated, based on the type of business and usage. For example, for a restaurant, the number of seats is a factor.
"It's ridiculous - for me, $110,000 - I had no idea," said Jean Dupon, owner of the 85-seat Le Grenier Restaurant 96 Main Street. "We were told we were going to be connected, and when we asked about prices, we were told they don't know yet. All of a sudden, they slap it to us."
Recalling that the sewer system's start-up was a frustrating process, Mr. Dupon added, "The town originally restricted who could apply, and then at the same time told us there's not enough volume and we have to increase your fare."
At the other end of Main Street, Mansion House co-owner Sherman Goldstein operates a facility that gets a quadruple whammy when it comes to betterment fees, given its multiple uses as a hotel, restaurant, health club, and spa. Consequently, Mr. Goldstein said he also would describe his reaction to his bill as "sticker shock."
"It was an event that we knew was coming; we just simply had no idea when it was coming," Mr. Goldstein said. "So it certainly did come as a surprise, and the timing was especially unfortunate, given the economic climate that we're dealing with. It's going to be, I think, a very, very difficult period for Tisbury businesses, and this certainly contributes to that difficulty."
The town's betterment letter does offer the option of paying the amount over 20 equal annual installments. "At five percent interest," Mr. Goldstein pointed out, "which is, of course, also above and beyond the 60 percent in taxes we pay as a business because of Tisbury's split tax rate, so it's a significant number."
Although Rainy Day owner Heather Kochin rents her store space, she said her landlord paid the betterment fee and then asked her and the other six tenants in the building to split the cost. In the case of a property like the Harbor Landing on Beach Street, Mr. McLean said individual condominium unit owners each received a betterment letter.
It's not surprising the sewer system is both out of sight and out of mind, given its history. Department of Public Works director (DPW) Fred LaPiana said Tisbury voted to establish a bylaw at town meeting in April 2000, giving the selectmen authority to construct the sewer system and determining how to pay for it. Voters agreed on splitting the cost 50/50 between the town and the users.
According to past town reports, the state approved $6.4 million of zero interest State Revolving Fund (SRF) financing in October 2000. Construction began in the spring of 2002. An "inaugural first flush" took place when the wastewater collection system and treatment facility opened on May 10, 2004, on time and on budget.
Basically the sewer district includes all of the downtown area of Main Street to the Lagoon Pond drawbridge and ending at the first block up from Main Street around Le Grenier Restaurant, Mr. LaPiana said.
"As I understand it, properties were specifically identified within that area that could not or did not have the real estate to put an approved Title 5 system on their property, and those were the properties selected," Mr. LaPiana said. The town hall on Spring Street also was included, because with the cemetery behind it, there was no place to put a Title 5 system.
Once constructed, the sewer system became the responsibility of the DPW. The town Board of Public Works (BPW) commissioners is responsible for determining any additional betterments associated with it, whether an extension of the system or a capital cost associated with a major repair, Mr. LaPiana said. A sewer flow review board established by the BPW assists in considering all requests for additional flows or service. "Since we've been on line, we've had, of course, some properties with a change of use, a change of regulation," he noted.
Properties that wanted to hook up to the system utilized Title 5 flows as required in the regulations as the initial benchmark for assignment of flow in applications to the review board, Mr. LaPiana said. "Now those flows may be adjusted later on, as we build up a two-year history on an individual property, and we go from design flow to actual flow," he added.