More than a decade ago, and following years of often heated debate, Tisbury built the town’s first municipal sewer system. Reacting to concerns that the new system would spur development and growth, Tisbury purposely built a wastewater treatment plant with limited capacity.
The decision to hobble the town’s capacity to treat wastewater meant that the cost would be spread among a limited number of users.
Now users complain that fees — up 95 percent in two years — place an unfair burden on a limited number of businesses and organizations, and that the cost of operating in Tisbury will impact the town’s commercial base and efforts to develop affordable housing.
The Department of Public Works (DPW) fiscal year 2016 (FY16) sewer enterprise-fund budget, approved as part of the department’s budget at town meeting, included a 30 percent increase in sewer use fees — from 3 cents per gallon to 3.9 cents per gallon in the next fiscal year.
That follows an increase from 2 cents per gallon in FY14 to three cents in FY15, a 50 percent increase. In total, the FY16 increase represents a 95 percent hike since FY14.
For the Mansion House, an anchor hotel at the foot of Main Street, the increase translates into more than $50,000.
“So in real numbers, it takes our sewer bill and jumps it from $48,000 to over $102,000 a year,”Joshua Goldstein, a manager in his family’s business, told voters at town meeting last week.
“How can we justify such a huge expense?” he added. “It’s killing the businesses in the town.”
Mr. Goldstein warned that the proposed sewer user fee increase already was impacting decisions by business owners about whether to stay in Tisbury, or move to Oak Bluffs or Edgartown, where rates are lower. He said one of the Mansion House’s business tenants plans to move out next year because of the continuing increases.
“What can we do to lower our costs so our town can remain vibrant?” Mr. Goldstein asked. “Because with the costs that are in this budget, our town cannot continue to thrive, my family’s business cannot continue to thrive, and I would ask you to make changes so that we can continue to make Vineyard Haven vibrant year-round.”
DPW Director Glenn Mauk said an oversight of $25,000 that should have been included in the FY16 sewer enterprise-fund budget was discovered following a Board of Public Works (BPW) public hearing on April 6. Based on the new budget total, Mr. Mauk said, “We’ll probably seek to lower the increase after this town meeting, by way of public hearing, to 3.75 cents.”
Nonetheless, he added, “From last year to this year, we have $100,000 less in free cash from money that was built into the fund to operate the plant, and I think what’s happening here is that for many years the plant was underfunded.”
Tisbury’s sewer district includes all of the downtown Vineyard Haven area, from Main Street, starting around the former Le Grenier Restaurant, to the Lagoon Pond drawbridge. The wastewater collection system and treatment facility is located at the DPW facility on High Point Lane. It was designed to serve a mix of about 135 commercial and residential properties, former DPW director Fred LaPiana previously told The Times. He said about 60 to 70 percent of those are businesses.
“The system we built was cobbled together on town meeting floor more than a dozen years ago to satisfy people who didn’t want to build it at all,” BPW Commissioner George Balco told The Times in a phone call last week. “I remember commenting as FinCom chairman that it was too small. We made the smallest, most expensive system we could make, and now people are saying, My God, this is the smallest, most expensive system. No one listened to our opinion.”
Voters subsequently agreed to split the construction costs of the “growth neutral” sewer system 50/50 between the town and users. The state approved $6.4 million of zero-interest revolving-fund financing in October 2000.
Property owners who wanted to hook up to the system applied to the town sewer-flow review board, which assigned sewage-flow rates. Sewer betterment fees were assessed to Vineyard Haven businesses beginning in November 2008.
User fees are calculated on the number of gallons of water used, not on the actual volume of flow that goes into the wastewater treatment plant.
The Steamship Authority (SSA) recently built a new pump-out facility for its ferries that is tied into the town sewer system in Vineyard Haven. Mr. Balco said the SSA paid for its infrastructure, and does not have a betterment fee, but does pay user fees.
Feeling the pinch
On April 6, one week prior to town meeting, the BPW held a public hearing to discuss the proposed DPW budget and new sewer user rates. The system’s 110 users received notices by mail.
Mansion House co-owners Sherman and Susan Goldstein sent out a letter of their own to other Vineyard Haven business owners, urging them to attend the hearing. Twelve people, including Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein and their son Joshua, attended the hearing, along with BPW Commissioners George Balco, John Thayer and Denys Wortman. BPW Chairman Leo DeSorcy and Commissioner Jeff Kristal were absent.
“My question to the commissioners was, What are you going to do about it; who’s going to lead the change that’s going to be required?” Ms. Goldstein said in a phone conversation with The Times two days later. “Each of them said the plant is too small, and it will get more and more expensive to operate.”
J.B. Blau leases space in the Mansion House, where he operates the popular Copper Wok restaurant, one of Main Street’s only year-round restaurants. He also owns and operates the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Co. and Sharky’s restaurants in Oak Bluffs, and Sharky’s in Edgartown. Mr. Blau said he pays two to three times more for sewer services in Tisbury than in the other two Island towns.
“It is an extreme difference, and with a near 33 percent increase about to go through, plus inevitable future increases, it is an amount that would prevent us from being able to consider anything in town in the future, unfortunately,” Mr. Blau wrote in an email to The Times. “And as our lease ends, we would need to seriously consider the expense when deciding to stay or leave.”
Mr. Blau said Tisbury’s exorbitant sewer fees, coupled with its limited beer and wine licenses, make Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, which offer lower fees and full liquor licenses, more attractive at this time, especially for a company trying to maintain year-round operations.
“We have loved our short time in Vineyard Haven, but the more we learn about these out-of-whack expenses and their pending increases, the less likely we would be able to remain in town in the future,” he said. “Or, as an alternative, we would have to look for a location that is not hooked up to the town sewer.”
High sewering costs also affect the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Executive Director David Vigneault pointed out at the hearing. He told the BPW that the ancillary impacts of the sewer user-fee increase on services such as affordable housing were significant, and at cross-purposes with other town goals.
“For example, the proposed rate increases — a 95 percent total increase when coupled with last fall’s — would double to $6,000 our sewer fees for four apartments on Lagoon Pond,” Mr. Vigneault said in an email to The Times. “That equals our full budgeted amount for all utilities at that property, with no recourse to raising rents due to original funding restrictions. That means that other affordable rental properties in town and elsewhere will have to subsidize those units.”
No economy of scale
In separate phone conversations with The Times last week, Mr. Balco, Mr. Thayer, and Mr. Wortman all said one of the biggest drawbacks with Tisbury’s 110,000-gallon wastewater treatment plant is that it cannot achieve the economies of scale that Oak Bluffs, which operates a 400,000-gallon plant, and Edgartown, with a 750,000-gallon plant, can.
“The trouble is, the wastewater stream that’s running through there has been flat, basically,” Mr. Balco said.
And since the plant has to operate 24/7; it can’t just be shut down at times when the flows are lower than they are in the summer.
“If we could get more flow through the system, we wouldn’t have to increase the number of employees; basically, that would just help lower the rate,” Mr. Wortman said.
Also, if the sewer system is expanded, adding more users would spread the operating costs over a larger base, Mr. Balco said.
At town meeting two years ago, voters approved borrowing $990,000 to install a new wastewater leaching system and make upgrades to increase capacity at the wastewater treatment plant. The purpose was to allow for B-2 business properties to hook up to the system, provided they install a pipe for the connection, to reduce the nitrogen level in Lake Tashmoo. The new system is not in use yet.
Voters at town meeting last week, however, shot down an article that would have authorized funding for design and engineering services to extend the sewer system from 82 Main Street to Greenwood Avenue. The extension was intended to address a failing septic system at the Vineyard Haven Public Library and to allow the tie-in of a boat pumpout facility at Owen Park.
Selectmen Tristan Israel and Melinda Loberg, however, argued in favor of waiting and doing more planning.
The BPW is hamstrung in that it cannot set regulations or policy, Mr. Thayer said. “The business owners have to understand there’s nothing I can do — I’m balancing a budget operated by an enterprise fund,” he added.
Mr. Balco and Mr. Wortman both said they believe it might be time for the town to consider funding some of the wastewater treatment plant’s operating expenses with taxpayer money.
“We really like to keep it as cheap as we can for the users, but it’s an enterprise system, so it has to pay for itself,” Mr. Wortman said. “If we wanted to change it over and put some on the tax rate, we could lower the cost to each user. But then people who don’t use it would be paying for it. Let’s say you put $50,000 of that on the tax rate. That would help the users, but would the general public really want that?”
In the meantime, Mr. Wortman said, the BPW will continue to look for possible ways to save money in operating the wastewater plant.