Chautauqua conversations: Cherry discusses vote on sewer plant project, tax increase

Chautauquans are going to hear a lot about their sewer plant this summer, particularly between the beginning of the season and Tuesday, Aug. 12. As The Chautauquan Daily reported extensively during the 2013 season, the Chautauqua Utility District, which runs the sewer plant on the south end of the grounds, faces compliance with federal EPA mandates to clean up the water put into the lake.

These mandates mean that taxes for property owners will increase.

The estimated bill for the sewer plant project is $7 million, which means that if voters approve the project in August, the average Chautauqua property tax bill will rise by around $400 per year for 30 years. That’s $12,000 over the life of the bonds that will be purchased to finance the project. 

The Institution, the CUD and the Chautauqua Property Owners Association all support approval of this project and the cost it will take to fund it. 

The Institution will pay its fair share of the property tax costs for the sewer plant improvements. 

Longtime CUD supervisor, Tom Cherry, explained that these tax increases for individual property owners are averages. Cherry will be making rounds of the Institution in the coming weeks to audit individual properties on the grounds, assessing how much individual property owners will owe.

This ambiguity is because the engineering design for the sewer plan upgrade — approved in a 77-1 vote by 6 percent of the 1,300 eligible Chautauqua voters in August 2013 — is just now being completed. A major reason for the delay is Cherry’s continuing efforts to get the consulting engineers to keep the project costs down to $7 million. But the design is very close to completion now. Cherry and other Institution leaders have been in constant contact with New York Department of Environmental Conservation officials, and Cherry is confident that the state will be able to review the project by the end of July. State approval would greenlight the project if voters approve it. 

Voters will thus have more precise information available for their consideration before the August vote.

Cherry devoted a lot of time during the 2013 season to raising Chautauquans’ awareness of this issue. He will intensify his efforts this summer. The campaign began last week at the annual pre-season CPOA potluck dinner in Hurlbut Church. Addressing a packed house, Cherry and CPOA president Hugh Butler fielded a lot of questions. Cherry’s remarks are as follows. 

“For me, there are two aspects to this problem. Both are important to the August vote. One is that people are going to make an investment not only in Chautauqua Lake, but also in their own community — the Institution and the grounds.

The second concept is compliance with federal and state regulatory agencies. That means the EPA in Washington and the DEC in Albany, New York.

I want to talk first about the money issues because I understand that is what is foremost on many people’s minds this summer.

I anticipate that the overall sewer plant upgrade project, which is mandated by the federal government, will have a budget of between around $7 million.

This means that if the sewer plant upgrade project is approved by voters in August, the average Chautauqua property tax bill will rise by roughly $400 per household per year for 30 years.

I cannot be more precise now because the final engineering design, which was authorized by Chautauquans last summer, will not be finalized until next month. Formal New York state approval will follow. We are confident that the state will have finished its review of the plans before that date.

I do understand that this is an amorphous situation. It could not be avoided. In a large public works project like this one, there are obviously many moving parts. For instance, the consulting engineers have already been instructed by me to redesign the project twice to reduce costs and increase use of existing facilities.

So Chautauqua homeowners are looking at an average annual $400 tax increase. How did it come to this?

Basically, the federal EPA mandated in the 1990s that all U.S. sewer plants located adjacent to lakes and rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico (like Chautauqua) and Chesapeake Bay must reduce phosphorous and ammonia discharges into those waters by a fixed deadline. For the Chautauqua Utility District, that deadline is June 1, 2018. The construction time is at least two years, and we like to plan prudently and that is why we are moving forward at this time. Delays are inevitable with a project like this one, which features a number of bureaucratic and organizational players.

Failure to do so will (a) generate state-imposed daily fines which property owners will end up paying in the form of higher taxes or special levies, and (b) open the door to higher construction costs down the road because the mandate to upgrade the sewer plant will remain, and construction will inevitably cost more in the future.

That’s why the commissioners of the utility district (all five of whom are volunteer Chautauqua property owners) and I feel we need to move forward with the August vote even though we may not have a precise project budget at that time. Readers may be interested to know that the 1934 CUD charter requires a vote on expenditures over $100,000, and that vote may only be held on the second Tuesday in August. So we would forfeit an entire year if we don’t vote on Aug. 12.

I have not cited casually a $400 average annual property tax increase figure. I think this is a pretty close guess, but I just can’t be more exact at this point.

What will your tax increase pay for? Basically, the answer is equipment upgrades, construction and installation costs. Within the existing buildings, we will replace pumps, motors, generators and controllers. There will be substantial additional tankage within the current sewer plant property. The new tanks will be the only additions visible from the road, and will located west of the existing tank structures uphill from the sewer plant.

Any potential new odors will be mitigated by new odor control equipment which is part of the project. I expect we will experience a reduction in noise from the sewer plant when the project is completed.

 But the big plus from this sewer plant upgrade project is of course the significant improvement in the quality of the water that we discharge into Chautauqua Lake. That, after all, is what moved the EPA to issue these mandates in the first place.

Chautauquans can be rightly proud of the Institution’s many efforts to reduce the negative impact of the Institution on the quality of water in Chautauqua Lake. The sewer plant upgrades will further the goals we share to preserve our lake.

The Institution and its property owners are not alone in facing these federal mandates. Other lakeshore and riverine communities in Chautauqua County, and in particular those on Chautauqua Lake, are facing the same requirements.

The county sewer plants in Mayville, Lakewood, Jamestown and many other locations face the same requirements we do, and like us, they will have to figure out how to fund them. Their deadlines are not quite the same as ours, so we will likely be the first on the lake to meet the federal and state mandates. Maybe it’s not a bad thing for the Institution to lead the way in protecting our environment and our lake.

Chautauquans may be aware of efforts by former county executive Greg Edwards to implement a plan to extend sewer lines around the entire lake and consolidate processing of waste water at the county plant in Lakewood. Current county executive Vince Horrigan has supported the sewer line proposal but abandoned the idea to consolidate all processing in Lakewood.

This means the Chautauqua Utility District plant will remain open. Institution and utility district leaders worked hard and successfully to change the county’s mind on this issue.

Any Chautauquan with questions won’t find me hard to locate this summer. I’ll be speaking at both CPOA meetings which precede the August vote, and doubtless at other events which will be announced in the Daily. I want everyone to share our confidence that the course we have chosen is the best one.”

Anyone with questions should reach out to Cherry by emailing him at cudwwtp@windstream.net.