Will Wallingford lose about $5.6 million in state and federal grants because of the way it's handling state mandated upgrades to the town's wastewater treatment plant? Will work on the facility ever be done? Let's explore the first question straight away, and then deal with the second one at the end.
In 2009, the State of Connecticut as implementer of the federal Clean Water Act, announced that it would impose limits on the amount of phosphorus the town could discharge into the Quinnipiac River from its treatment plant. This meant Wallingford would have to upgrade its facility, which is old and out of date in other respects, too. All the upgrades would take several years and would cost lots of money — $47 million is the latest "conceptual estimate."
Government grants could cover 42 percent of the cost, and 58 percent could be paid for by sewer users with 20-year loans from the state at 2 percent interest. In order to qualify for this level of funding, however, Wallingford would have to sign a construction contract by July 1, 2019. (The original deadline was July 1, 2018, but it was extended to give more time to towns like Wallingford who were dragging their feet.) We don't know everything the town did to address the situation from 2009, but much of its energies were spent unsuccessfully fighting the law because the mayor thought it wasn't fair. With all that lead-time one would think the town could make the due date with ease. Not so. The deadline looms; the town is behind schedule.
To speed up the process, Richard Hendershot, the recently appointed Director of Public Utilities, told the town council on March 27, that he was requesting a bid waiver so the PUC could more quickly assign a firm the task of completing the plans, drawings, and specifications for the project. If the deadline is missed, the grant would be reduced to 30 percent, costing the town $5.6 million or more.
Even though the council eventually approved the bid waiver unanimously, Democratic Town Councilor Vincent Testa was concerned. Why, he asked, was the town at risk for losing grant money when the governmental requirements and deadline were a matter of common knowledge for years? Why the slow start? Hendershot claimed that he was unaware of the issue until July 2017. The new Water and Sewer Division general manager said that he wasn't tasked with this issue until early 2017.
Who was minding the store? The Public Utilities Commission, the overseer of all utility operations, could have answered that question. It had the duty to make sure this project did not land on the back burner, slip through the cracks, or suffer from delays, but it was not in attendance.
Unsatisfied, Mr. Testa turned to the mayor. Did the town get a late start because it was "stubborn" about complying with the law, he asked? Mayor Dickinson never explained why the town took so long to get the ball rolling. He insisted, however, that he has long wanted to obtain an authoritative final cost of the project "… because that gives us the argument as to whether this (wastewater facility improvement) makes any sense or not." He called the project "unaffordable" even with grants. He proclaimed, "To assume we have to do this is a mistake. ... Maybe those who are saying that (we need to do this) are in error. That's what I'm saying. ... I think someone has to represent the general public."
But what is the mayor saying, exactly? Has he been only loosely monitoring the project because he intends to litigate the phosphorus limits anyway as soon as he knows the firm cost of the needed upgrades? Is he gambling that a court will rule that the phosphorus regulations are unenforceable if he contests them? Every word the mayor spoke at the council meeting was consistent with that interpretation. He needs to clear this up.
Mike Brodinsky is a former Wallingford city councilor and host of the “Citizen Mike” public access show.