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Billerica Flushes Sewer Fine Proposal

October 13, 2018

BILLERICA -- What is fair?

That question was at the center of a more than hourlong discussion at Town Meeting Thursday regarding an ultimately unsuccessful proposal to fine residents who choose not to connect to town sewer.

Town Meeting representatives voted down the proposal in a 65-82 vote.

“It’s not the role of government to force residents to use services they don’t want, can’t afford or don’t need,” said Selectman Michael Rosa.

His comments were echoed by others who opposed the proposed fine, which would have charged residents who did not connect 60 percent of the cost of an annual residential wastewater bill, the equivalent of about $240 a year, according Town Manager John Curran.

For 44 years, a town bylaw has required residents to connect within a year of sewer being made available in their area, but it does not include any fine for those who do not comply.

Curran said about 630 residents are currently violating the bylaw amounting to $200,000 in lost revenue annually. As it stands, Curran said each ratepayer pays about $15 more per year to cover tens of million in town spending to expand sewer infrastructure.

“Someone who is delinquent and hasn’t connected -- you’re paying for that,” he said.

Opponents argued all residents pay for the town’s expansion of the sewers through taxes. Curran said only about $6 million is still being paid this way. All new debt incurred by these projects is funded by sewer rates, he said.

Others at the meeting said a number of residents have spent thousands to replace their septic system in order to comply with state standards after waiting years for town sewer. Opponents expressed concern for residents who would be forced to pay thousands to connect then cover the ongoing cost of sewer rates.

“Fines won’t help people who can’t afford it,” said Town Meeting Representative Ken Glasser.

An unsuccessful amendment proposed by Selectman George Simolaris would have granted a temporary exemption for residents who purchased a septic system in the past ten years. The amendment would have also allowed the Board of Selectmen to grant hardship waivers.

A separate article that allows the town to apply for a low-interest loan program from the Department of Environmental Protection passed 132-12. Using this funding, together with with $200,000 from free cash, the town manager can administer loans paying for sewer connection to residents who qualify for relief based on financial need and cost.

Over the past several years, the town has spent almost $40 million to expand its sewer system and expects to spend an additional $90 million in coming years, according to Curran.

After the meeting, he said the Board of Selectmen may need to consider reevaluating this plan.

“If people are not connecting, why are we putting this in?” he said.

A similar proposal for instituting a fine failed at Town Meeting about three years ago.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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