PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant will cost $13 million less than expected.
The city awarded Methuen Construction a contract of $51,423,287 to make the upgrades required to comply with a U.S. EPA mandate to lower the levels of phosphorous and aluminum being discharged into the Housatonic River. It also includes adding a nitrogen optimization process. The City Council had previously authorized $74 million to complete the work.
"I think it shows our engineers and third-party review team did an amazing job at designing a system that could be constructed for a price below what we estimated. This is obviously good news for the city of Pittsfield because we will be getting a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant for a significantly lower cost than we anticipated," Mayor Linda Tyer said on Friday.
"This is great news for the ratepayers. Now that we have these bids and contract awarded we can go back to our rate study and reassess the impact that this will have on the ratepayers."
The project was hotly debated among the councilors this year. But the issue isn't new. In 2008, the EPA issued a new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to the city calling for the decreased levels of phosphorous and aluminum. The city took the EPA to court to appeal the order but ultimately lost.
In 2015, the EPA issued an administrative order to comply with the standards, demanding the city breaks ground on the project by August of 2018. Previous City Councils had authorized around $9 million for engineering, design, and piloting of technology for the plant. The consultants Kleinfelder took charge of designing the new plant and in the spring Tyer put forth a request to borrow what was an estimated $74 million project.
The City Council, however, batted the issue around. At first, the council voted it down with several councilors voicing concern about the cost and questioning if there wasn't a way to comply with the permit by eliminating some aspects of the construction or choosing different technology.
The EPA again issued a warning that the city could be fined if it missed the August deadline. In April, the City Council narrowly approved the $74 million authorization. With that approval, the EPA agreed to push back its required timeline to allow for the procurement process. The new deadline is Jan. 15, which is when the contract with Methuen starts.
"This is the sort of infrastructure investment that communities are obligated to make for those of us that are here now and people who will be here 50 years into the future. This is a significant and important infrastructure project," Tyer said.
"I understand and sympathize with people's anxiety over the cost. At the same time, this is exactly what government is supposed to be doing. We are supposed to be investing in our infrastructure and keeping our city modern and prepared and ready to serve future generations."
The large price tag will have a significant impact on residents' wastewater bills. The administration crafted a rate plan for the next seven years calling for a 50 percent hike at the start of 2019 and then lesser increases throughout the following six years. At the end of the seven years, the bills for a home with two toilets would go from $247.69 to $466.69 annually.
Now that the bids came in less than anticipated, Tyer said the administration is going to revisit that rate study and adjust its plan accordingly. The contract was awarded on Thursday and Tyer said it will take some time for the administration to determine exactly where rates will have to be to cover the cost.
The majority of the project will be borrowed at a low-interest rate through the Massachusetts State Revolving Fund, which administers the Clean Water Trust Fund. The city had been awarded a $50 million loan through that program with a 2 percent payback rate. The state Department of Environmental Protection had to review the bids before awarding the contract and gave its approval of the Methuen bid on Wednesday.
Tyer said there was some discussion about getting a zero-percent interest rate but that eligibility may more likely be used when the city undertakes projects with the water system in the future.
Metheun was the lowest of three bidders on the project. C.H.Nickerson and Daniel O'Connell's Sons also bid on it but at just slightly higher of a cost.
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