Pittsfield City Council To Reconsider Wastewater Plant Upgrades

Apr 23, 2018

The Pittsfield City Council will hold a second vote Tuesday night on the mayor’s controversial wastewater plant upgrade plan.

On February 27th, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer saw her spending request to upgrade the city’s wastewater plant die at the hands of four city councilors – the minimum needed to prevent the supermajority required to approve the plan.

“I consider this an urgent matter, and I plan to resubmit our request to borrow the $74 million that’s required to complete the upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant in order for us to remain in compliance with the terms of the city’s permit and the Clean Water Act,” said Tyer.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Tyer’s spending request gets a second chance in front of the 11 councilors. The mayor is confident she’s maintained existing support for the plan.

“And I can only hope that the remaining four members have been persuaded by the strongly worded letter that we received from the EPA,” Tyer said.

She is referring to a subsequent meeting with regional EPA administrator Alexandra Dunn.

“During that meeting, I conveyed to her and her staff the concerns that were raised by several members of the city council," said Tyer. "Then following that session, she and her staff prepared a written response, and in that written response they very clearly stated that the EPA has no information to support that the city is incapable of meeting its commitments, and that if the city chooses not to, EPA is prepared to take necessary enforcement to insure compliance.”

The response contained specific data on why the city’s wastewater plant requires the upgrade.

“Pittsfield accounts for 89 percent of the total phosphorous load among Massachusetts dischargers into the Housatonic River,” said Tyer.

Councilor Melissa Mazzeo says her opposition to the mayor’s spending request has remained the same, and that the meeting with the EPA has only underscored her desire for Pittsfield to renegotiate requirements with the federal agency which Mazzeo deems unfair.

“Massachusetts and Connecticut have two different water quality standards," Mazzeo said. "My thing is, if we’re trying to protect the environment across the country and across the world, why would you allow state to state have different standards? So why can Connecticut say, ‘Well we can throw in X amount of phosphorus,’ but Massachusetts says, ‘Oh no, we can only throw in this much,’ but when the water flows together and goes in the Long Island Sound, you know, it’s all going to the same place, so that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Councilor Christopher Connell also opposes the plan. He says the city hasn’t explored enough options to keep prices down.

“One of the option was to hire an independent engineer who specializes in infrastructure improvements in wastewater and water treatment plants to look at the work that is being proposed by the consultants that the city has and to see if the- if all the work was absolutely necessary to be done in order to possibly minimize cost,” said Connell.

He also points to a 2016 study he conducted on another avenue for the city’s wastewater plant.

“In a public-private partnership, these firms that do this all through the northeast and as well as the country, they work with municipalities and they design, they build, and they operate the plants," said Connell. "So, that wasn’t even considered.”

Connell characterizes the final price tag, as well as the increase in sewer rates the plan will require, as potentially devastating for city residents. Mayor Tyer contests this.

“We currently have the lowest sewer rates in Massachusetts, and we have actually pursued some creative financing to help mitigate the impact of the sewer rates. We were approved for a $50 million loan and a 2 percent interest rate through the state’s revolving loan fund, and if we don’t pass this borrowing authorization, we’re going to lose that low interest rate loan, that’s a very key piece of the financing of this project," said Tyer.

In addition to Mazzeo and Connell, councilors Kevin Morandi and Donna Todd Rivers voted against the plan on February 27th. Both told WAMC News they require more information from city hall about sewer rates and EPA requirements before considering changing their votes.

While the mayor will not be present at the meeting due to a vacation, her Director of Administrative Services, Roberta McCulloch-Dews, will present Tyer’s letter about the plan. Commissioner of Public Works David Turocy and Director of Finance and Administration Matthew Kerwood will be on hand to answer questions.