It's time to talk sewer

Is the time right for a sewer expansion in New Milford? Town officials and residents will make that call in coming weeks.

The Town Council has set a town meeting date for the proposed $30 million sewer treatment plant expansion for Aug. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Pettibone School cafeteria.

Taxpayers will then have an opportunity to debate the merits of the project and review information related to the expansion.

A referendum vote is scheduled Aug. 18 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the various town polling places.

The majority of council members favor the proposed expansion and renovation as a means to entice new commerce and industry, and to protect the community's aquifer.

The timing could also be right because the town is now eligible for some $6 million in stimulus grants and a two-percent interest state loan for the balance of the project. And that money might not be available a year from now, according to council members and Sewer Commission chairman John Heaton.

The loan program also would allow the town to wait to make any payments until 2013, a year after the project would be expected to be completed.

With the economic downturn, expansion supporters added the project cost is now $8 million less than the previously anticipated price. Construction costs alone had been estimated at $29.6 million, but the lowest qualified bidder came in at just under $22 million.

That bid will be good until Sept. 2.

"This is something that needs to be done,'' said council member Pete Bass, a member of the Economic Development Commission. "if we're going to bring in economic development we need the proper infrastructure... and this is a good first step in that process.''

Council member Roger Szendy said this project would be critical for aquifer protection, and noted that eventually the entire cost would be borne by the sewer system users.

Council members Robert Guendelsberger and John Lillis were the only two members to voice misgivings about the project. Both, however, agreed to give voters the final say.

Mr. Guendelsberger said he fears doubling the plant from its existing one million gallon-per-day capacity will lead to high-density, affordable housing complexes. Such residential housing would require more town services that could further burden existing taxpayers, he said.

He also noted the project would require an additional pump station for the Route 7 south sewer line extension. That is estimated to cost about $3 million. He said the proposal does not incorporate that construction -- state funding limited what could be requested -- and before the voters decide on the expansion they should be aware of those additional costs.

The council agreed to discuss seeking those additional funds at its July 27 meeting.

Mayor Patricia Murphy, who favors the project, stated the proposal is not just to expand capacity, but to upgrade a treatment facility that simply is not reliable. The state Department of Environmental Protection has advised the town it needs the upgrade to comply with current environmental standards.

Economic Development Commission member Jeff Winter said the project has been in the making for almost a decade and is critical to the community's future.

"Make this investment now,'' Mr. Winter suggested.