NORRIDGEWOCK — The town manager asked the Board of Selectmen to consider seeking legal counsel Wednesday night about potential liability for violations at the town wastewater treatment facility.

Meanwhile, two members of the sewer commission said they were less concerned about potential violations of Department of Environmental Protection rules and think the sewer department has adequate funding to get through the year.

“Our facility is more than 20 years old, and it’s really lacking in proper preventative maintenance,” Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said at Wednesday night’s selectmen’s meeting. “We are or could be on the verge of a potential failure at all times. These are pieces that we’re starting to look at.”

As of Jan. 1, the sewer department owed $99,808 to the town, and the lack of revenue at the sewer department has a direct effect on the ability to do maintenance and fix repairs that could be coming up, Flewelling said.

At Town Meeting in March, residents approved a sewer budget of $170,410.

“But as everyone knows, the sewer plant has been operating in the negative for many years,” Flewelling said. Before the most recent sewer rate increase in 2012, the last time there was an increase was in 1994, and there have been revenue shortfalls every year since 1996, according to town records. The current rate includes a $30 stub fee and a charge of 5 cents per cubic foot of water per quarter.

The lack of recent rate raises combined with lack of collection have contributed to the department’s debt, Flewelling said.

In addition, the town has run out of room in its septic tank and no longer can take sewage from residents. “We cannot treat what we have here because of this condition, and we will be in the process of taking that septage, up to $10,000 worth, to Madison,” Flewelling said.

The cost of having the septage treated in Madison will be at a higher cost than if the town were able to treat the septage itself, she said.

Selectman Jim Lyman asked Charlotte Curtis and Ron Currier, members of the sewer commission, whether they have had any recent discussions about rate increases or reasons why the town should not raise the sewer rate.

“Last March we did discuss the rate and we voted not to increase it, primarily because the water district was planning to double their rates and we thought a double-hitter in one year was extreme,” said Currier, the commission’s vice chairman. He said that although the department has a tight budget, it is enough to work with for the year.

“It’s being made to sound like we’re not taking care of the maintenance at the sewer plant, but that’s not the case,” Currier said. “We have four sewer commissioners, and each one of them, I think, is very competent.”

Wednesday’s meeting followed a decision by the commissioners earlier this week to buy a replacement backup pump using money from the department’s capital reserve. During the discussion, Currier made a motion prohibiting Flewelling from talking during the meeting.

“Unfortunately, we had the town manager tell us all the legal stuff we’re going to be responsible for,” he said. “I don’t mind being cautioned about the legalities of the stuff we’re doing, but she took out a three-page letter, a legal analysis of the state statutes and began to read it. I made the motion then that we ask her to be silent. We had to vote her silent in order to do our deliberations.”

According to Maine law, municipalities can face penalties from the state if a lack of preventive maintenance at wastewater treatment plants leads to discharge in excess of license limitations.

Fines can range from $2,500 to $25,000 for each day of the violation. It is important that the commission make a written record showing that they are aware of the penalties and have made efforts at preventive maintenance in order to avoid being fined if violations arise, Flewelling said.

Given the aging state of the facility, the DEP has recommended that the town seek legal counsel for input on whether any elected officials or town employees would be liable if violations were to arise, she said.

“There may come a time when we can’t avoid a violation, and I don’t want to see that affect them, myself or anyone else,” Flewelling said.

Currier pointed out that the motion was eventually reversed and said that Flewelling’s input was “crucial” to the commission’s decisions, but that he didn’t see the point in seeking legal counsel. Instead, the board recommended to Flewelling that she seek the advice of the Maine Municipal Association, at least initially.

“We did discuss the budget thoroughly in March, but based on the information we had, we thought we were doing what was right and proper,” said Charlotte Curtis, a member of both the Board of Selectmen and the sewer commissioners. “We have toured the plant and there are some places that need work.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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