Mashpee Sewer Board Initiates Talk Of Water District Combination
By: Elsa H. Partan
The Mashpee Sewer Commission voted on Tuesday to combine its duties with those of the Mashpee Water District, saying the marriage could save tax dollars.
In January, two of the three water district commissioners expressed disapproval of the idea. But this week, the third commissioner, Kenneth E. Marsters, said he supported bringing the sewer commission’s tasks under the responsibility of the water district if taxpayer dollars can be saved. He asked for a meeting between the two commissions in the next three weeks.
Town government does not currently control the water district. Rather, the district is a separate political entity created by the state with the power to set water rates. It is run by a board elected by voters for three-year terms. Mr. Marsters is up for reelection in the municipal election on May 7.
The town has little sewer infrastructure currently, but is in the midst of planning a townwide wastewater treatment system that will take decades to complete and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That planning has been done by volunteers so far, with the help of consultants but no paid staff.
Tuesday’s motion, made by commission member John J. Malarkey, seemed to come as a surprise to many on the sewer commission and had to be added to the agenda after a roll call vote. Although the timing was sudden, the idea is not new. Chairman F. Thomas Fudala has recommended the move for several years and many others, including selectmen, have said they agreed.
In 2009, Mr. Fudala estimated that the town would save between $500,000 and $900,000 a year in costs if sewer and water were combined into one administration. The savings arise from cutting out duplication on everything from secretaries to pickup trucks, commissioners have said. It would also give the sewer commission more options to raise tax dollars without the constraint of a state law that prevents towns from increasing town spending by more than 2.5 percent a year.
After a short discussion Tuesday, the commission voted unanimously in favor of the motion, directing the Mashpee Board of Selectmen to take whatever legal steps are necessary to combine the two.
“It was overdue,” Mr. Malarkey said in a phone interview on Wednesday when asked about the timing of the motion. “We seem to be skirting around the issue, and it was time to bring it to a head.”
Ronald P. Gangemi, who was elected to the Mashpee Board of Water Commissioners in April 2009, reiterated his concerns about combining water and sewer duties in a phone interview on Wednesday. He said he doubted that there would be much overlap in equipment.
“You can’t use a sewer truck for water, it could contaminate the water,” he said.
Also, he questioned whether the water district staff could handle the additional work of running a sewer system.
“They are not sitting around,” he said. “They are busy eight hours a day already.”
Fundamentally, Mr. Gangemi said he was uneasy with the cost projections of installing townwide wastewater treatment systems and hoped that installing individual home denitrification systems could accomplish the same goal for less money. He said getting involved in a huge sewer project could weaken Mashpee’s public water system, which he said is expertly managed.
“We want to make sure we have a very efficient operation. We want to keep it that way and not go into debt. What if we need to replace equipment? Some of it is very expensive,” he said.
Even with his misgivings, Mr. Gangemi said he has not yet made up his mind on the subject.
In contrast, Mr. Marsters seemed enthusiastic about the possibility. He is currently the chairman of the commission.
“I’m flattered,” he said. “I think these guys are looking at us and seeing that we have excellent financial management. If we can save the taxpayers money, I’m 100 percent for it. That is my top priority.”
Water commissioner Perry F. Ellis, who was reelected last May, could not be reached for comment before press time. In January, Mr. Ellis said he believed the wastewater project was large enough to necessitate a separate sewer department, which should be assisted by the water district, but not combined with it.
The situation in Barnstable is even more complicated than in Mashpee, according to Robert J. Ciolek, a finance expert from that town who spoke to the sewer commission on Tuesday evening. Where Mashpee has just one water district, Barnstable has four, only one of which is under town control, he said. The other three are separate political entities. Whatever the merits of combining water and sewer duties may be, the subject has been quashed by the leaders of the three districts.
“Their position is, ‘We do a wonderful job,’” Mr. Ciolek said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. “And they want to be in charge of their own fate. People look at it as a political black hole. They don’t even try anymore.”
Mashpee Town Manager Joyce M. Mason said in an e-mail that she agreed with the sewer commission that the town should start discussions to make the water and sewer union happen. She was not sure that the vote taken by the commission mandates action by the board of selectmen, however.
Questions remain about the process of combining sewer and water into one district. Selectmen may have a role, but they do not have the power to make the change unilaterally. State legislation is needed to amend the definition of the water district, Mr. Fudala said. That was also the opinion of the water district’s attorney, William C. Henchy in a November 2006 memorandum to the water commissioners. In addition to the legislative change, Mr. Henchy said he believed a vote of the public is needed at a water district meeting to obligate the district to operate the sewer facilities.
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