postheadericon Who Will Pay For Sewer?

sewer2012_120The Lansing Town Board considered a new plan for financing a sewerproject that would significantly reduce costs for sewer district residents in a special working session Wednesday.  Until last week town officials' approach has been that only residents within the sewer district would pay all sewer costs.  But as the final map plan report is crafted officials are considering an all-town plan that would reduce costs to district residents by two thirds by spreading capital costs town-wide.  Town Attorney Guy Krogh said that a town-wide sewer may be of benefit to all Lansing residents.

"You're going to pay one way or the other," he said.  "The question is do you want to get something for it and take a shot that it's going to reduce your taxes in the long run, or do you just want to sit and wait for the boulder to fall?"

Until now the sewer project has been modeled to adhere to New York Code - Article 12-A: Sewer Or Water Improvements, which describes how a sewer district is formed and paid for exclusively by district residents.  Wednesday the Town Board considered Article 12-C, which provides for capital sewer costs to be shared by all or some town residents, with additional service fees being paid by those who directly benefit from it.

Officials argue that the whole town will benefit from a sewer and the cluster development that will allow a town center to be developed.  They note that town and school taxes would pay costs for properties owned by the two taxing authorities, so the reduced rates would provide an immediate benefit to Lansing taxpayers.  Additionally Krogh noted that the benefits of a town-wide sewer are that it will preserve agriculture, preserve the lake, offset losses from the power plant devaluation, offset school district increases with new businesses coming onto the tax roles, increases tax revenues, provide for affordable and senior housing, and lower the overall school costs.

Town Councilman Ed LaVigne noted that the big tax is the school tax, and by using sewer to bring cluster development to the town center businesses will be attracted to locate there.  he noted that businesses are better for taxes than residences, because they use fewer municipal resources.

Krogh noted that the Town of Ithaca took a town-wide approach when forming their sewer and water districts.

"You go through the headache of creating one district one time, and then extensions are all in the benefit area," Krogh explained.  "The disadvantage is that just about anything you do that's not de minimis is going to require Comptroller review."

Town officials say that a town-wide sewer would not delete their ability to use the sewer as a tool for focussing cluster development in the town center, rather than allowing it to spread around the town, threatening agricultural lands.  Engineer David Herrick warned that if the service area is allowed to expand too much that the planned eight inch pipe and sewer capacity won't eventually be enough, forcing costly upgrades.

"There is some perception that if I pay will I get it at some point in the future?" Herrick said.  "The answer is no."

Supervisor Kathy Miller says that it is a moral issue because all townspeople are 'in it together.'  She also noted that studies show that municipalities that invest in sewer attract the right kind of development and are successful in controlling how their communities are developed.

"It would never go out to the Benson's farm," she said.  "I've talked to them.  The Bensons would be in favor of (the sewer) because they like the idea of development not hitting their farm.  It's a plus for them and they're willing to pay not to have farmers selling bits and pieces of land along the way."

Sewer Committee member Andy Sciarabba told the board he favors the town-wide approach because it would dramatically reduce costs for district residents while at the same time not cost residents outside the district more than about $35 per $100,000 of assessed property value.  That would put the sewer on a par with the library tax.  But it would dramatically lower the cost of sewer within the service area from an estimated $603 in the first year to about $217.

"From a moral standpoint I have a big problem with the current proposal charging five or six hundred dollars a year to folks along this corridor who can't afford it," said Sewer Committee member Andy Sciarabba.  "They're not affluent people.  That's why we're struggling to try to get the cost down as far as possible.  From that standpoint I'd like to support 12-c because it brings the cost down from the $600 level to around the $200 level."

He also noted that it would reduce the cost to the school district, providing an immediate, direct benefit to everyone who pays Lansing school taxes.  He said it would lower the school obligation from around $45,000 to $15,000 or $20,000.

In a discussion of people who would support a town-wide sewer and those who would not, Krogh likened the projet to the Algerine and Lansing Station Road water extension in 2006.

"You had a whole section of homeowners down there who said no, we don't want it," Krogh recalled.  "We put the thing in.  Everyone down there is celebrating and dancing because they finally have a steady supply of clean, potable water.  Who were the first people that said, can you extend it to us now?  The answer was going back in and extending it at this point is a separate proceeding, and your costs are going to be twice what they would have been had you joined in the first place."

Sciarabba noted that a town-wide sewer would not be dependent on the additional units projected for two senior housing projects that have been proposed for the Town Center.  Those projects were needed to bring up the number of Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDUs) to help spread capital costs to a point where sewer becomes affordable.  He said by spreading the capital costs throughout lansing the town could relax its timetable, allowing time to complete the comprehensive plan revision that began last month, and to gather responses to a Request For Proposal (RFP) the Town is distributing to developers to gather ideas for the new town center.

All board members agreed that it will be incumbent on them to explain how the money paid by non-service-area residents will be paid back in benefits to the whole town.  If a homeowner outside the service area pays $75 per year, are there $75 worth of benefits to offset it?  Theoretically school taxes would be held at bay, if not reduced.  Sewer costs to the town and school would be less, so taxpayer obligations could be reduced.  Accelerated development in targeted areas such as the town center would increase the tax base, spreading the tax burden and lowering taxes for existing residents.

Additionally septic system costs need to be compared to sewer costs for those within the district.  Sewer costs are predictable, and paid a little at a time each year.  When you need a septic system replaced, however, all the costs are now.  Krogh said that sewer is probably slightly more economical.

"A non-raised bed engineered four lateral three bedroom home thousand gallon septic system right now costs about $18,000 to install," he said.  "Soup to nuts, connections to the house, the whole nine yards.  It has a twenty year expected life span if you do your routine maintenance for about $300 per year.  You never have anything great.  If nothing breaks after 30 years the septic system is a little bit cheaper (than sewer).  But there's no such thing as 'nothing ever goes wrong' in a septic system."

Officials acknowledged that some residents will balk at paying for sewer if there is no chance they will get it.  But Miller said that some current opponents within the service area may change their mind if the town-wide approach is taken.

"I have heard from a number of people in the district along Myers Road who have actually said that if the whole town pays this they are much more apt to say yes," she said.  "I don't even think they know it will reduce the price this much."

The board has been split on sewer with Miller and LaVigne in favor.  Both also serve on the Sewer Committee.  Andra Benson was also in favor of the project, but she no longer serves on the board, so will not vote on it.  Katrina Binkewicz, who is running unopposed for Benson's seat, favors sewer.  That leaves Robert Cree who has been guardedly in favor the project, and Ruth Hopkins, who has raised a lot of questions about costs and benefits.

Wednesday both Cree and Hopkins said they are more comfortable with a town-wide sewer.

If that approach is approved more updates to the Map Plan Report will delay the initial vote to start the process.  Those already in sewer districts in Lansing would most likely be exempt from the tax because they are already paying for their sewers.  A determination would have to be made on how much would be paid for service and how much by property taxes, which impacts how not-for-profits like churches and schools would participate.

No binding action was taken Wednesday, but board members said they would work on how these details will be resolved if they decide to remake the project into a town-wide sewer.

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