BRUNSWICK — A skeptical Town Council approved a $5 million debt limit increase Monday for the Brunswick Sewer District, enough for the agency to fund an expensive facility upgrade, but only a quarter of the amount it requested.
Councilors also voted to participate as a municipal government in an upcoming public hearing on a storm-water permit application for a proposed Amtrak train layover station in town.
A proposed charter amendment that would allow the sewer district to double its debt limit to $40 million was revised to a $5 million increase by the council in an 8-1 vote. Councilor John Richardson voted against the motion.
The debt limit increase is still set to be reviewed by state legislators and is expected to go before the district’s ratepayers in a November 2015 referendum.
Sewer district Director Leonard Blanchette told councilors a $20 million increase in the debt limit was needed to pay for improvements to the district’s aging treatment plant, scheduled for 2016-2017.
He also noted no ratepayers attended last week’s public hearing to question the increase contained in the original charter amendment.
The upgrade is estimated to cost up to $22 million, Blanchette said. Ratepayers could see a 40 percent increase fee over the next four years to pay off the borrowing when it comes due in 2018.
Blanchette noted that more accurate cost estimates will be available when final building designs are produced by the end of 2015.
While the district would like to begin work on the upgrade as soon as possible, a second, $19 million facility improvement will be required to comply with new environmental regulations expected sometime in the next 20 years, Blanchette told councilors.
Rather than return to the council and hold referendums for regular debt increases, sewer trustees want to increase the limit to fund both projects, Blanchette explained.
Several councilors, however, were skeptical about approving increased borrowing, especially considering the expected rate hike.
Richardson contended that the 50-year service contract between the Brunswick and Topsham sewer districts “clearly disadvantages ratepayers in Brunswick.”
He also said that although no one attended the public hearing on the charter amendment, he has been contacted by constituents upset about increasing the debt limit.
“I know you need to make some changes there, but I’m not comfortable going to $40 million at this time,” Richardson said.
Councilor John Perreault also questioned the need to double the debt limit, expressing concern that the council might be writing a “blank check” for the second, still-uncertain phase of the upgrade.
Others, however, supported the rate increase. Councilor Gerald Favreau said there’s a need for new equipment to replace machinery at the plant.
“It’s amazing they can keep it going,” Favreau said.
Councilor Steve Walker agreed the facility upgrade is necessary, and noted that possibly expensive environmental regulations requiring phosphate removal are “inevitable” and might come sooner than expected.
Councilor Suzan Wilson, on the other hand, lamented that the council was following the example of the U.S. Congress by using debt limits as a “political football.”
Councilors voted unanimously to file as an interested party and also participate as a municipal government at an upcoming Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on a storm-water permit application for the proposed Amtrak layover facility in Brunswick.
In a memo to council Chairman Benet Pols, town attorney Stephen Langsdorf noted that filing as an interested party would allow the council to keep updated on developments ahead of the hearing.
When the hearing date is set, the town will have the opportunity to participate as a municipal government, which means it can offer testimony and cross-examine witnesses, Langsdorf noted.
He recommended the options over filing as an intervenor in the hearing, which would force the town to take a position and spend money to fulfil its intervenor role on the storm-water permit for the passenger train layover facility proposed by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority.
The hearing will not cover anything but the storm-water permit, Langsdorf explained, noting that most of the state and town regulatory power over the project is superseded by federal guidelines.