Closer look at sewer chief’s resignation/departure
NEW MILFORD — Michael Finoia’s resignation last week as sewer superintendent came after months of discussion between him and sewer commissioners about how to handle an increase in the volume of septic tank waste being treated at the plant.
As early as March, Finoia and commission members had begun discussing the benefits and drawbacks of accepting septage, which is typically brought to the plant by private haulers, commission meeting minutes show.
Collecting septage generated significant revenue at a time when the commission was looking for ways to repay its debt to the town for a 2012 plant expansion, but the growing load was straining the plant’s equipment.
“We were trying to compromise,” sewer commission member Bill Buckbee said this week. “It was an opportunity to raise revenue, but I think we just started to get more and more haulers coming up here.”
Finoia, who resigned effective June 2, said he had been raising concerns about the increased load since taking the job in January, but the situation became more serious in the spring following mechanical failures at the plant.
In a May 16 email to the commission, Finoia said plant equipment was being overwhelmed because septage brought in more solid waste than the plant was intended to handle. He noted sludge was running through overflow pipes, a puddle of sludge had come within six inches from a storm drain and two machines had become clogged with rags brought in by haulers.
At a special meeting earlier this week, the sewer commission agreed to add a $25 debt service charge to every residential and commercial bill as a way of raising money to repay its debts to the town.
The commission also set rates for the upcoming fiscal year at $175 for a basic residential unit and $275 for each basic commercial unit, with a gallonage charge for both of $6.30 per 1,000 gallons.
The commission also agreed to begin charging septage haulers from outside the immediate New Milford area an additional $40 per 1,000 gallons.
“This plant can no longer be put at risk by trying to supplement revenue in this manner,” Finoia wrote in the email. He said if sludge had entered the storm drain, the plant would have violated its permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Finoia said treating septage requires more water and electricity than treating waste that comes through the sewer system.
“Septage is a nasty product,” Finoia said this week. “It’s probably 20 to 30 times more potent than what comes in the regular collection system because it’s more concentrated.”
Septic waste is drier and contains more solids because much of the liquid drains away in septic tanks, he said. It also tends to have more grit and inorganic waste such as cloth wipes, which are collected by haulers when the tanks are emptied.
The additional materials wear down or clog the pumps and other equipment, requiring more maintenance than usual, Finoia said. He said three pumps failed one night this spring.
Finoia said the plant’s situation was like that of a room crowded beyond the capacity set by the fire marshal.
“My issue was cause and effect; by taking in so much material at a small facility, it was causing problems,” Finoia said. “If it keeps going like this, the plant is going to suffer.”
DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said it is not unusual for sewer plants to accept septage, and permit problems would arise only if the plant was operating at at least 90 percent of capacity for 180 days.
“We have no indications of issues at the New Milford plant,” Schain said.
The plant has long accepted septage from haulers as a way of generating revenue, and the need for revenue became more urgent when Mayor David Gronbach began pressing the commission to repay its debt, which at one point stood at $4.3 million.
In December, the commission agreed to pay half of its septage revenue to the town to help with the repayments.
But Gronbach said it has always been the commission’s practice to take as much septage as possible to generate revenue, and the real problem was that the commission had failed to require more residents and businesses to hook up to the system and become paying customers.
“It’s got nothing to do with the town,” Gronbach said. “They weren’t getting people to connect.”
He said the commission wouldn’t have a septage problem if it had enforced restrictions on what can be brought into the plant and that “bad actors” were bringing in waste that also contained rocks, wipes and other problematic material. He said septage fees weren’t high enough to discourage haulers to bring waste from New York.
“Why are people driving by all of these places that collect septage to go to New Milford?” Gronbach asked.
On May 17, Finoia wrote to waste haulers informing them the plant would no longer take more than 25,000 gallons a day, effective June 2, and out-of-state waste would no longer be accepted.
During a sewer commission meeting May 22, Finoia cautioned commission members that the amount of septage being collected at the plant was so high the plant was in danger of violating its permit. He said if collections weren’t capped as he had told haulers, he would resign June 2.
“I was trying to look out for the plant using my experience and what I’ve done for 25 years,” Finoia said. He left the meeting believing the commission had agreed to the cap, although commission members have said they didn’t formalize the cap until this week.
But in a May 25 meeting with the town finance and personnel directors, Finoia was told his resignation was accepted.
“The commission had followed my directive, so why would I need to resign?” he said.
Gronbach said the meeting was held to find the underlying cause of Finoia’s resignation threat.
“It’s no way to be in a position of authority and threaten to resign without explaing the underlying issues,” he said, saying the resignation could have been avoided if the plant just followed the existing regulations.