Norwalk council delays vote on sewer fee

NORWALK - Deadlocked and facing strong pushback from residents and property owners, the City Council on Tuesday delayed voting on a proposal to establish a yearly fee to finance the overhaul of Norwalk's dilapidated sewer system. Under the proposal, Norwalk property owners would see a sewer fee tacked on to their annual tax bills to fund renovations of the city's 164 miles of clay pipes.

The fee is based on the size of the property's water meter; an average Norwalk household would pay about $81 per year, with slight increases on an annual basis.

More than a dozen residents protested the fee at Tuesday's public hearing, prompting Mayor Luigi Vernola and Councilman Mike Mendez to back off the plan and support a proposal to put the issue in front of voters.

Vice Mayor Marcel Rodarte and Councilman Leonard Shryock said the fee, although unpopular, was necessary to fix the sewers.

Councilwoman Cheri Kelley, the swing vote, was absent due a recent hospitalization, prompting a stalemate. Kelley is expected to be at the June 18 meeting when the issue is reintroduced.

Unlike most area cities, Norwalk does not charge its property owners a sewer fee to maintain the sewer system. The result has been a largely neglected network of aging pipes that have exceeded their projected lifespan, officials said.

There have been 10 sewage spills in Norwalk since 2006, when the state began collecting statistics.

To fix the problem, city officials proposed a 50-year plan that charges property owners a sewer fee based on the size of their water meter. The plan would raise about $2.19 million in its first year, enough to start renovations.

Fixing the entire sewer system will cost about $65 million over 50 years, said Grissel Chavez, public services superintendent for Norwalk.

Property owners who spoke out against the fee Tuesday seemed to agree that the sewer system needs work but they disagreed on how it should be financed. They also complained that the city allowed the sewers to deteriorate to its current condition.

"This is not and most certainly should not be an unforeseen circumstance," said resident Dave Lauderdale.

Former mayor Jesse Luera complained about excessive fees from different parts of government and recommended a vote by residents.

"People are getting tired of all these increases," Luera said. "I don't think the sewers are going to blow up in our faces if we wait a while."

Other speakers included senior citizens on fixed incomes and the owner of an apartment complex, who feared he would have to raise rents.

The public testimony seemed to sway Vernola and Mendez.

"Maybe it should go to a vote," Mendez said. "If the voters reject it, we'll have to deal with it at that point."

Shryock and Rodarte disagreed.

"Let's be honest, this won't pass at an election," Shryock said. "And then what? We are the only city doesn't charge for its sewer."

According to city manager Mike Egan, the proposed fee can go to the ballot as a general tax. If approved, however, there are no guarantees the revenue would be spent on sewer services.

Approval of the fee by council members ensures that the revenue cannot be spent on anything other than sewer maintenance and repairs, Egan said.