PROVINCETOWN — Voters were treated to a detailed presentation on the town’s $75-million sewer expansion project at a forum last week and had a chance to ask equally detailed questions of the designers. Their questions focused on money.
DPW Director Jim Vincent and John Goodrich, the town’s longtime sewer consultant, were asked about the projected costs to property owners. There were also questions about the financial assistance program that the town hopes to create with American Rescue Plan Act money.
Half the properties in Provincetown are already connected to the sewer system. Their owners would not see any new costs from the expansion, which needs a two-thirds vote at a Nov. 9 special town meeting. But the existing operations contract for the wastewater treatment plant will have to be renegotiated in 2026, Goodrich said, and costs are expected to go up. Expanding the system to bring in new users would help keep the future per-user costs down, Goodrich said.
For those who are not currently connected, there are three different kinds of costs, each of which is explained in fact sheets now posted to the sewer dept.’s website.
Sewer user fees are calculated differently from the town’s billing system for water. Both services are billed every six months. In most of the examples at the forum, the sewer user fee would be 25 to 50 percent higher than that home’s current water bill. Most fees would run between $400 and $800 per year; a four-bedroom house occupied year-round might pay $1,120 per year.
Betterments are the fees that property owners pay to support the expansion of the sewer system — so-called because the system is seen as “bettering” the property, or increasing its value, Goodrich said. Betterments will be assessed at $7,150 per bedroom, payable in equal increments over 20 years with no interest. That means an annual payment of $357.50 per bedroom.
Low-income property owners can delay their betterment payments until the property is sold, and no one will be assessed a betterment until the sewer is actually available in their neighborhood, Goodrich said.
It was connection costs that drew the most questions, however — partly because they are harder to estimate and vary so widely between properties, and partly because they may be high. Those costs are not paid to the town but to the contractor who physically installs the pipe that connects a home to the sewer line that runs under the street. They depend on the orientation of the home’s existing plumbing, the distance to the road, the landscaping or hardscaping that needs to be removed and replaced, and the decommissioning of whatever on-site septic system already exists.
A “typical” connection cost would be $9,500 to $12,000, according to the town — but a “more complex” installation could be $15,000, and a multi-building property might trigger an additional $40,000 to $75,000 fee, according to the town’s survey of seven licensed sewer connectors.
The town is arranging to have the county’s septic loan program expanded to finance sewer connection costs. That program offers a 5-percent interest rate over 20 years.
About 10 percent of town properties that are not currently sewered lie at a significantly lower elevation than the nearby street and will need a grinder pump to send sewage uphill to the new sewer lines, Vincent said. The list of such properties will not be nailed down until later in the design, but a preliminary map presented to the select board on June 30 showed clusters of properties that might need grinder pumps along Bayberry Street, Cottage Street, Willow Drive, Heather’s Way, Sandy Hill Road, and Atkins Mayo Road.
Grinder pumps cost $7,000 to $15,000 to purchase and install, according to the town’s survey of contractors, and an optional generator to run the grinder pump (and the rest of the home) during a power outage would add another $5,000.
Most of the properties that were identified as needing a grinder pump are along a proposed low-pressure line, however, and the town is planning to reduce betterment assessments to those homes to make up for the added cost of the grinder pump, Goodrich said.
Homeowners on private roads, including Atkins Mayo Road and Duncan Lane, wanted to know if they would have to pay for the sewer lines underneath their roadbeds. The town would pay to install those lines, Goodrich assured them, leaving them responsible only for the cost to connect to the new sewer line.
The town has also applied to create a connection assistance program for low-income property owners, funded with $208,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds that were earmarked for Provincetown. That money would be used for “income-eligible grants and possibly no interest loans to cover connection costs,” according to the sewer fact sheets.
Some of the town’s larger rental properties are on cesspools, are near existing sewer lines, and will have to connect to the system early, possibly in 2024. Seven buildings of rental housing with 16 bedrooms at 25-27 Bradford St., for instance, are owned by the family of the late Napi Van Dereck. There are 23 bedrooms in 13 buildings at 15 Howland St., owned by the Tasha family. Nearly all are seasonal or year-round rentals — and the connection costs for a property with this many buildings could approach six figures.
Sewer connection contractor Ryan Schmidt told the Independent that it’s difficult to estimate connection costs in advance because of factors that lie underground. The location of gas lines and other utilities matters, as does the exact route of the new sewer pipes and the landscaping that must be removed and replaced.
“We’re doing a water service in Eastham right now that runs parallel to existing gas lines,” Schmidt said. “It’s a lot of hand digging — guys with shovels.” Mechanical excavators are faster and cheaper, but they can’t be used when other utilities are in the way. Schmidt said costs for freshwater installation can vary by a factor of 10 based on site-specific conditions.
The town is working on grants for low-income property owners — but is also thinking about landlords, Goodrich said at the forum.
“We’re looking at where there might be funding sources that could be used to ensure that additional costs that landlords incur won’t be passed on to those who live in rental housing,” he said. “It’s a concern.”
For multi-building properties, the numbers can add up quickly. The betterment fee on a 23-bedroom property such as 15 Howland would be $8,222 per year, and a connection fee of $90,000 would cost $7,128 per year if financed with a 5-percent county loan. User fees of $250 per one-bedroom unit would add up to another $5,750 per year. Altogether, that could be about $21,100 per year, or around $917 per bedroom when divided among 23 bedrooms.
Fact sheets posted online say that the town’s application for a connection assistance program is now being reviewed by the county, and the town will post updated information as it becomes available.