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Forcier Admits Stormwater Program May Go Down The Drain

Apr 11, 2019 12:30PM ● By Lisa Redmond

Dracut Selectmen Jesse Forcier and Joe DiRocco.

DRACUT – Caught between a federal mandate for a stormwater program and pushback from residents angered at possibly paying a $62 to $123 annual stormwater fee, Selectman Chairman Jesse Forcier admitted this week he didn’t think the $1.5 million stormwater program will pass Town Meeting.

“There has been a ton of talk,’’ Forcier told the selectmen this week. “I’ve heard a lot of negativity about it…It is not going to pass Town Meeting,’’ he said.

The bottom line, Forcier said, paying the $1.5 million price tag will have to be paid for from the town budget. Faced with that dire possibility, Forcier said, “We need to find a better solution and a more creative solution.’’

To meet new federal stormwater regulations against stormwater pollution, the Board of Selectmen is considering enacting a fee based on the impervious surfaces of each property to pay for an estimated $1.5 million annual program to prevent polluted stormwater from contaminating lakes, streams, ponds and rivers.

The town is mandated meet federal requirements for a five-year MS4 (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems) permit, which went into effect July 1, 2018. Every community in the state is required to establish a program to prevent stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces, such as driveways, walkways and roof to pollute waterways, according to Neal Campbell, a project manager with CDM Smith.

Campbell told the selectmen at a previous meeting that stormwater is rain, snow melt and anything else that flows into the storm drains then dumped into waterways and wetlands. The stormwater contains contaminants from grease to feces.

To ignore the mandate is to face fines, fees and sanctions from the federal government.

At this week’s meeting, Selectman Tony Archinski agreed that “no one is happy about the fees.’’ He described this stormwater program as a “classic” unfunded federal mandate, but the town must comply or face serious financial sanctions.

Many communities faced the same sort of economic challenge when towns were forced to clean waterways by beginning a wastewater/sewer program. Town Manager James Duggan said he delayed implementing the stormwater program for as long as he could due to the cost.

Archinski asked if Duggan could “slow down’’ implementing a stormwater program to a point where the town would pacify federal officials while not spending $1.5 million at this point.

Both Archinski and Forcier are seeking re-election in the May Municipal Election. Challenger Brian Bond has publicly stated his opposition to the Stormwater Plan article and "any fees." Challenger John Joyce has not yet commented publicly on the article.

Selectman Joseph DiRocco suggested looking into Tyngsboro’s program that uses a subcontractor for the catch basins, but using part-time help for the other work, avoiding paying health insurance and other benefits.

Selectman Alison Hughes said the town will be required to do this, but it comes down to the numbers. “It’s not what the final number is, is how we are going to pay for it,’’ she said. “If we don’t’ have a fee, how are we going to pay for it?’’

Taking money from free cash for a recurring cost is a bad fiscal move and one frowned upon by the state Department of Revenue. And the last attempt at a Proposition 2 ½ override failed, she said.

“We are under a lot of pressure on our end to supply services and to supply a balanced budget,’’ she said. People who say find the money in the budget, Hughes said, “There isn’t $1.5 million of excess in our budget. So when people say find it, it’s not that easily found.’’

If the money has to come from the operating budget, residents should know the cuts that would result, she said. “Something is going to need to be cut to cover it,’’ she said.

Duggan said he understands, “no one wants it. I don’t want it.’’

Duggan told the board he will present many options including taking the money from the budget. “Nothing will be sacred,’’ he said. He will also look at a phased-in approach, a fee or not doing it at all

Duggan strongly advised the board there should be an article at Town Meeting to fund the stormwater program, even if it is defeated.

According to the MassDEP, all of Dracut’s eight waterways are impaired with E. coli levels that exceed MassDEP limits. E. coli bacteria found in animal waste, runoff from lawns and farms, flocks of geese and illegal septic connections. The Merrimack River is also impaired by phosphorus.

All that runoff travels through Dracut’s stormwater system, including: 77 miles of drain pipes, 1,125 culverts, 3,800 catch basins, 150 detention ponds, 430 outfalls and 160 miles of public streets. Campbell estimates the town’s costs for the system will start at $750,000 in FY20, $1.25 million in FY21 and $1.5 million in FY 22.

The most expensive charges are: Investment in capital equipment, such street sweepers and vacuum truck and staff; additional stormwater sampling and testing; a robust catch basin cleaning program; additional street sweeping; and stringent monitoring for illegal discharging.

A proposed stormwater fee would help to offset the cost of the program. CDM used drones to digitally map all impervious surfaces in the town. There is a total of 53, 227,053-square feet of impervious surface in town.

CDM recommends the town implement a fee based on each property’s total square footage of the impervious surfaces such as roof tops, driveways, sidewalks and pools. CDM recommends a rate of $1.57 per 100-square feet in FY20, $2.47 in FY21 and $3.12 in FY22.

The result is the average single-family home with nearly 4,000-square feet of impervious area will pay an annual fee of $62 in FY20, $97 in FY21 and $123 in FY22. Dracut High School has more than 1 million-square feet will pay about $17,000, $26, 600 and $33,600. An office park with 187,000- square feet would pay $3,000, $$4,600 and $5,800.

The town could also approve a stormwater credit policy with a credit of up to 50 percent of the annual fee for properties that install an infiltration system, such as a dry well, rain garden or detention pond. And customers have the right to appeal a bill to the local Stormwater Permitting Authority and depending on the outcome -court.

The next step in the process is for the selectmen to support the program then it will go to Town Meeting in June for approval. The billing process will need to be finalized with semi-annual billing beginning as early as July.

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