Former Warwick firefighter captain and former state Representative Peter Ginaitt is no longer chair of the Warwick Sewer Authority – when his term expired last month Mayor Joseph Solomon named Carlo Pisaturo to succeed him – but he believes the authority is well run and he intends to speak up on its behalf.
In an interview Saturday, Ginaitt pointed out that the city’s sewer system is a $1 billion city asset. However, unlike schools that turn to the mayor and City Council when it needs additional funding, it operates like a business. It pays for the principal and interest costs of its borrowing for capital improvements and operations through assessments and usage fees.
It hasn’t been easy, he notes, citing the floods of 2010, two major collapses at the Cedar Swamp pumping station, issues with the reconstruction and increased elevation of the levee at the waste water treatment plant and state Department of Environmental Management requirements to build an additional phosphorous removal system at a cost of $17 million. More recently, the authority has faced the reality of an aging system that was improperly built to start more than 35 years ago with the collapse of deteriorated pipes on Sandy Lane. Replacing 150 feet of pipe cost the authority $750,000 and it’s going to take another $180,000 to treat an additional 1,400 feet of the same line with a fiberglass lining.
Ginaitt points out that the authority recognized the need to address its infrastructure years ago when it started a renewal and replacement program. He fears, for political reasons, those long range plans could get shelved.
“They [the authority] have plans to sustain a system,” he said. “They [elected officials] just want to do it this year and then next year it’s that year.”
As the Sandy Lane break illustrates, Ginaitt said, “It isn’t cost-effective to let it collapse [and then fix it].”
He’s wary that the council would push to use bonds tagged for sewer extensions to address infrastructure replacement. If that were to happen there is no source of revenue to repay the bonds, whereas if used as intended, assessments would cover the cost. With 300 miles of pipe, 5,000 manholes and 48 pumping stations, he endorses a sufficiently funded renewal and replacement fund – a cost shared by the users – that pays for scheduled upgrades based on systematic monitoring.
Ginaitt is defensive of criticism that the authority has dragged its feet on expanding sewers to Bayside and failing to offer 30-year terms for assessment payments. The Bayside project that would bring sewers to 900 property owners in Riverview, Longmeadow and Highland Beach has been delayed by the presence of Native American artifacts including, as Ginaitt said he has seen, human bones beneath Tidewater Drive. The authority intends to use directional drilling to avoid digging up sensitive areas.
“Ed [Ward 5 City Councilman Ed Ladouceur] is upset by Bayside, but it is the most challenging project,” said Ginaitt.
In response to observations that the roads and other utilities were built without regard to the artifacts and suggestions that sewers could follow areas already disturbed, Ginaitt says “We have to have some respect.” He said the design of the system is on schedule.
As for a 30-year repayment plan for assessments, Ginaitt points out that the terms of the authority bonds are 20 years and that, until the Clean Water State Revolving Fund extends those terms, the authority is faced with 20 years. He said it is no different than terms of a home mortgage and when the bank sets those terms they’re not going to arbitrarily change them.
Lumping road repaving into assessments is another issue. Ginaitt believes the city should foot the cost of road repaving, not the property owners who are already faced with the cost of the sewer project. Eliminating the repaving costs from sewer construction costs could reduce assessments by 15 to 27 percent, he said.
“We know the Sewer Authority is the paving program of Warwick,” he said. Like Ladouceur, Ginaitt argues repaving should be borne by the city, not just the people living on that road. But Ginaitt is disenchanted by the failure of the council to address the issue.
“Put up or shut up. Show us that you’re trying to do it,” he said.
Ginaitt, who for the past three years has worked for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority overseeing environmental, health and safety issues, suggests the mayor and the council tour the wastewater treatment plant and hear first hand how it operates and see the work that the authority performs. Such an “education” would go a long way in understanding the challenges the authority faces and appreciating the job being done, he said.
Ginaitt said director Janine Burke-Wells has “given her heart and soul to the Sewer Authority. She always tries to deliver the best she can for the city.”
Ginaitt said he wouldn’t sit back and let people make the authority look bad. He said if he allowed that to happen he could rightfully be accused of being “sour” with the mayor’s decision not to reappoint him. He vows that’s not the case.