The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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Hooking Up

Warwick sewer customers have seen a 100 percent increase in their usage bills over the past six years, under an aggressive program designed to chip away at a multi-million dollar deficit. This week Jim Hummel talks with one homeowner who was told by the Warwick Sewer Authority his house was going up for tax sale because he hadn't tied in - when it wasn't' true. Hear his story and the authority's response.

 

Click HERE to view the WSA letter of apology.

 

Click HERE to watch the extended interview with Janine Burke.

 

SCRIPT:

The 30-year-old raised ranch was a good fit for Greg Chihoski and wife when they bought it back in 2009. Chihoski had some extra money at the closing so he paid off a $1,700 assessment for the sewer line that been installed in front of his house just south of Conimicut, even though he wasn't hooked in. After all, the DEM had tested his septic system and said it worked just fine.

Chihoski said he never expected to hear from the Warwick Sewer Authority again once he settled the debt. But a year and a half later he received a letter from the authority saying he had to hook up - and he was facing some serious penalties for not doing so.

Chihoski: ``We never had any notice in that year that this was happening. When I called about the assessment no one mentioned that. It was just boom, here's your violation. You're in violation of this - right away it said $1,000 fine and $100 for every 24 hours. So right away it's like `Whoa' what happened?''

Months turned into years and Chihoski said he couldn't get a straight answer from the Sewer Authority or City Hall. Then he heard nothing until this letter arrived June 3rd - saying his house was moving toward a tax sale in August - just 11  weeks away.

Chihoski panicked and went immediately to the City Hall where he said an employee in the tax collector's office confirmed his house was NOT on any tax sale list.

Chihoski: ``He asked to see the letter.  I showed him the letter he told me: `Save this for your lawyer.' He said this is a threat. They're trying to threaten you into paying this.''

Chihoski's case reflects the confusion we found throughout Warwick about who has to tie into the sewer system, which covers about 70 percent of the city. Many who are hooked into the system want to know why usage rates have increased more than 100 percent in the past six years. Still others want an audit of the sewer authority's books to see where millions of dollars of bond money have gone over the past two decades.

Durand: ``What corporation in American today could increase their rates by 100 percent in six years and still be in business?''

Roger Durand has helped gather 750 signatures on a petition calling for an audit. Durand would also like to see the WSA come directly under city control.

Durand: ``All you had to do was walk up to the door and say hi, introduce yourself and mention you have a petition regarding the WSA. You had to say no more. `Oh my God my rates keep coming up!''

Hummel: ``It's that bad?''

Durand: ``It's absolutely that bad. People want an audit as to why at this juncture after usage rates keep on going up - as  I mentioned to you 100 percent in six years - they don't understand why the WSA has a debt as we sit here today of $108 million.''

Durand, who lives in a section of Governor Francis Farms, said he became interested in the issue because of the $8,000 he was assessed to have a sewer line run in front his house, even though he doesn't have to tie in. That is true for everyone in the city where sewers are available - they have varying assessments depending on the frontage of their yards.

Durand's attention, though, quickly shifted to rising usage fees.

Burke: ``There were some  major rate increases. That was one of the first jobs I got to do when I got here was increase the sewer usage rate. But it hadn't been increased in 10 years.''

Janine Burke took over as executive director of the sewer authority five years ago. Burke said she understands why people are upset by the increases, but adds they need to put the rates in perspective.

Burke: ``If you take a look at what a typical resident is paying in comparison to other communities, it's not that outrageous - it just was extremely low before.''

Burke provided us statewide survey showing that Warwick is eighth highest out of 20 systems in the state. She acknowledges that usage rates fund the budget, which this year is about $21 million, $16 million of which is debt service.

While most communities in Rhode Island require anyone with a sewer line in front of their house to connect - a special provision in state law exempts Warwick. Residents here don't have to tie in, unless ownership of the house changes hands.

Burke says there are 3,000 households in the city with sewers available that are not hooked in. The authority has 20,0000 customers. The plant can treat up to 7.7 million gallons a day, but is only operating at about 65 percent capacity.

Hummel: ``Even if a sewer is in front of their house, short of selling that house they don't have to tie in.''

Burke: ``We have no teeth to be able to make that  work.''

Burke says when she became executive director in 2008 the authority had a $7 million operational deficit that it's been chipping away at and hopes to erase by 2015. Which would help account for the increased usage rates.

Voters passed a $130 million bond issue nearly 20 years ago - convinced that sewer runoff from houses in coastal places like Apponaug were polluting the adjacent waterfront. The focus - and the sell to voters - clearly was the coastline.

Durand: `The question we ask is: `Why weren't these particular properties near the water sewered first?' That would have made the most sense. If we're doing this for the environment, that's where you start.  If you're doing this for political reasons that's not where you start.''

But Burke said the sewer plant, built in the 1960s, is located just west of Route 95 and uphill from the coastline, meaning the city has to rely on four dozen pumping stations like this one in Apponoaug, or this one near Gaspee Point to pump sewage back uphill and across the city for treatment. And that pipe had to be laid through inland areas to get to the coastal neighborhoods.

Burke: ``From my perspective a lot of bad planning. I really can't speak to the politics of it. For some reason sewers are very political.''

The voters approved another $50 million bond in 2004, but $35 million was used for mandated plant upgrades.

So virtually all of the bond money has been spent, and Burke estimates it will take more than $60 million to fully sewer the city. It is unlikely that Potowomut and Cowesett will be tied in because of geographical and geological issues.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Management has sent letters to hundreds of homeowners near the city's coastline informing them they need to hook up to sewers by early next year. They can get an extension to 2020 if the sewer line doesn't extend to their neighborhood but is in the planning stages.

Problem is: the authority needs to convince the City Council by the end of next year to approve bond financing to install them.

Hummel: ``Is that going to be a challenge or are they with you?''

Burke: ``I think it will be a challenge, some of  the council wards are fully sewered and even though these are revenue bonds we're asking for, I think it's going to be  a tough sell.''

So what about Greg Chihoski, who thought his house was going up for tax sale?

Hummel: ``I have heard from more than a few people that the WSA has been aggressive, in terms of hookups, fees, all of  that. Is that a fair characterization?''

Burke: ``No, I don't think so -  I think it's a changed method, I would say.''

Chihoski went to the authority's offices and asked to speak with Burke directly.

Chihoski: ``Even though they went back and talked to her nobody would come out. 'Cause really I wanted somebody to explain to me in person, what the actual law was, how I was in violation, and why I wasn't informed right away the point of sale.''

So Chihoski went to a City Council meeting in June where he confronted both Burke and the City Council trying to get some answers. And what about the words: tax sale.

Hummel: ``How in the world did that wording ever make it into a letter...?''

Burke: ``This is an unfortunate mistake, you know, I'll be the first one to tell you.''

Hummel: ``These are some of the stories that get out in the community of `Boy, you know that? They're really aggressive there and they want to get as many people hooked up.' But in my mind, that kind of crosses the line...''

Burke: (nods head).

Chihoski: ``It's like dealing with the Mafia. It felt like okay they've got some power, they can make the rules. I'm paying my bills, I pay my mortgage - me  and my wife work full time; it just feels like you're almost helpless. Something like this comes along and they threaten to take your house when you're doing everything else right.''

The day after we interviewed Burke, she sent Chihoski a letter of apology and said he still has to hook into the system, but could apply to have the penalties waived by the board when he does.

Burke told us the authority is trying to do a better job informing people through local realtors about the mandatory hookup after a sale.

And what if Chihoski had know that back in 2009  would it have been a deal breaker?

Chihoski: ``Yeah, it would have been if we were looking at a $3,000 to $4,000 tie-in we probably would have thought twice.''

In Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.