Photos by Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
From noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Colonnade, property owners on the grounds will have the chance to vote in an election which will affect the future course of their sewer and water services.
Property owners last cast their ballots back in August 2000, voting to upgrade the water plant behind the Colonnade that purifies Chautauqua Institution’s drinking water. That measure carried, with more than 95 percent of voters approving the upgrade.
This time around, the issue is the sewer plant at the south end of the grounds. Voters are being asked to authorize the expenditure by the Chautauqua Utility District of $408,000 for engineering design work for an Environmental Protection Agency and New York state-mandated equipment upgrade. This will enable the sewer plant to clean nearly all phosphates and nitrogen ammonia from Chautauqua’s sewer water before it enters Chautauqua Lake.
The Chautauqua Utility District solely covers the Institution grounds. The district’s supervisor, Tom Cherry, has been trying for months to get the word out about the election, what it means for property owners and what it doesn’t.
“One big thing this vote does not mean is a rate increase,” he said. “The mandate to update our sewer plant equipment dates from the Clinton administration, so we have known of it, endorsed it and planned to fund it for several years.
“Essentially,” Cherry continued, “we have appropriated sufficient money to pay for the engineering design for upgrades which will enable us to help restore the health of Chautauqua Lake. We are now asking voters to authorize the expenditure.”
Cherry pointed out that the Chautauqua Utility District is governed by a group of elected commissioners — Institution property owners.
“I work for them,” he said.
Having studied the federal and state mandates extensively and realizing their potential to greatly improve the health of the lake, Cherry and the commissioners devised a multiyear plan to prepare for the new, tighter requirements. They selected the engineering design firm with care and are confident in the firm’s ability to deliver a quality product within the proposed budget.
A second stage of the plan would come next year, when voters would be asked to endorse an outlay of an estimated $6 million to procure and install the new equipment. The capital upgrades coincide with the end of the normal life expectancy of much of the equipment in the sewer plant.
This is an interesting but not coincidental convergence.
“We saw this one coming,” Cherry said, “and we are ready.”
Cherry said that the $6 million expense slated for the ballot next year would be funded by a tax increase, estimated at 88 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. The tax would be imposed annually over a period of 30 years. For a home assessed at $400,000, Cherry said, the annual tax increase would be $352.
However, there are external factors at play, including at least two competing plans for complying with the federal and state mandates.
One of these plans involves the construction of a sewer line around the entire lake, as well as centralizing the treatment of all effluent at the county-owned wastewater treatment plant in Celoron, N.Y. This plant treats the central and south parts of the lake.
Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards has expressed support for this plan, and the Republican nominated to replace him after this year’s election, Vince Horrigan, has publicly embraced the plan, too.
Another plan being discussed would involve piping sewage from the Chautauqua Utility District to an underutilized wastewater treatment plant in Westfield, N.Y.
Cherry believes that while these other proposals may have merit, they have been insufficiently studied, and funding estimates are sketchy, at best.
“We keep hearing of these proposals, especially the plan to ‘sewer the lake,’ ” Cherry said. “The county executive strongly supports it and has met with the [Chautauqua Property Owners Association] … to explain his position.”
After Edwards’ meeting with the CPOA board, the group’s president, Hugh Butler, urged members to support the engineering design proposal on Tuesday’s ballot.
“As I told the property owners association in July … we have a lot of questions about the other plans,” Cherry said, “and there simply isn’t enough information available for us to make an informed decision on them. The county simply has not done the preliminary work to support a reasonable cost estimate and feasibility study.
“If we can gather enough reliable information and data on alternatives to our plans for the Chautauqua district,” Cherry continued, “we may try to move in concert with other jurisdictions around the lake. The lake belongs to everyone, and a coordinated, well-considered plan involving all the stakeholders makes sense. We will work to see what can be developed that best serves everyone’s interests.”
Meanwhile, Chautauqua Lake is still officially described as “impaired.” The state and federal mandates specifically address the phosphates and ammonia nitrate influents, which are leading causes of many of the lake’s ills — including the blue-green algae that often infests the lake this time of the year.
The “impaired” designation requires New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — the state’s version of the EPA — to develop measures specifying the maximum amount of a pollutant that the lake can receive and still meet water quality standards. The DEC is expected to issue new pollution discharge permits to the Chautauqua Utility District this month, and compliance with the new, lower limits, especially for phosphates, will become a mandate.