Boston Asks: What Cost a Glass of Water?

Nationally mandated cleanup takes a heavy toll on local taxpayers, and citizens mobilize to protest skyrocketing water and sewer rates

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

REMEMBER the property-tax revolt, which led to rate caps in California and Massachusetts and forced state and local governments to reorganize the way they do business?

A new grass-roots revolt is brewing in Massachusetts. The source of discontent this time is water and sewer rates. But to angry citizens staging a protest in front of the State House or planning to picket President Clinton when he comes to Boston June 19, the complaint is similar: money snatched from local people by a government out of touch with the people.

The heart of the controversy is the federally mandated cleanup of Boston Harbor, a murky body of water that evokes memories of the Boston Tea Party and yearly receives millions of gallons of sewage and waste water from 43 area communities. This huge plumbing operation is overseen by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), created in the early 1980s for the cleanup project.

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The cost for building new sewage treatment facilities on the harbor islands, and for rebuilding much of the aging water-distribution system, is estimated at $6 billion. In a time of belt-cinching by state and federal governments, most of that cost has come to rest squarely on local rate payers.Water bills tripling Accounts of water and sewer bills tripling and quadrupling in recent years abound. Lovie Elam, an anti-MWRA activist from Milton, Mass., says her three-person household now pays quarterly bills of $800. "They're absolutely phenomenal - at least three times higher over eight years."

While the particulars apply only to Boston and surrounding towns, Americans elsewhere may find much here to relate to. Scott Mackey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, points, for example, filtration and testing mandates in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1987. The requirements come unaccompanied by federal money, and small cities and rural communities will find it "very expensive," says Mr. Mackey.

In Massachusetts, legislators last week frantically tacked a number of MWRA-related amendments onto a $15.5 billion budget bill. Among these were a $18 million state subsidy for sewer rates, a demand that the MWRA change its population-based billing formula (a formula thought by many to penalize the suburbs), and a move to put the beleaguered agency under the governor's control.

Responding to the problem at the grass-roots level, Donald Jordan, a real estate agent from Chelsea, co-founded Stop This Outrageous Project (STOP) - a grass-roots group that has grown into a multitown coalition. But the analogy to the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early '80s does not really capture the spirit of STOP, he says. "You know what's going on with these fees?" asks Mr. Jordan, a large, energetic man who wore a blue baseball cap with "STOP" across the front at a recent rally on the State House steps. "Taxation without representation!"

Jordan and other leaders of the water-rate revolt prefer to draw parallels to 1776. They describe the MWRA as an unelected "authority" accountable to no one.

"You can't get at them - you can't vote them out," complains Mike Deluca, who heads a town meeting study committee in the South Shore community of Weymouth that has been compiling "facts" about the water authority and the harbor cleanup for years. Weymouth was first on a growing list of towns that have refused to pay their MWRA bills.

Weymouth's refusal wasn't so much an act of rebellion, says Mr. Deluca, as "a desperate financial act by a community that didn't have the money."

Weymouth has over $500,000 in sewer fees it hasn't collected from financially pinched residents, says Deluca. "How can the MWRA expect us to pay up immediately, " he asks.

The agency has a big stick to wield against reluctant towns. It is authorized to simply take the amount due out of state revenue that would normally be shared with a community.

MWRA spokesman David Gilmartin says he sympathizes with rate payers in the towns and cities that use the authority's services. "This is the only major metropolitan area in the country that has had to bear the burden of constructing a water and sewer plant on its own," he says. "Most others did this in the '70s when state and federal money was available."

That is a point readily taken up by protesters. Much venom is reserved for the Dukakis administration and state legislators of the past decade who, protesters say, could have gotten federal money under the then-amply-funded Clean Water Act. Instead, says Deluca, they fought over who would distribute the funds until that funding was lost to Reagan-era cutbacks. Project funding

STOP activists say that the original funding plan called for 75 percent of the money to come from Washington, 15 percent from the state, and 10 percent from localities. Now, says Deluca, "The top two layers of government are telling the lowest layer, `You fund this project, get it done!"

The unequivocal order to get it done came back in 1986, when federal district court Judge A. David Mazzone established a framework for construction of the harbor cleanup facilities.

The order came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation that was later joined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Peter Shelley, an attorney with the foundation, says he understands the protesters' complaints, since he's a rate payer, too. But he cautions that "the level of ignorance is profound - people don't even know what they're paying for."

The rate revolt zeroes in on the harbor cleanup, he says, but people don't realize that half or more of the $6 billion will go to rebuild parts of the regional water system that have been allowed to deteriorate for half a century. Consider the "ancient" aqueduct from the reservoirs, says Mr. Shelley. It has never been inspected because there is no backup line to use during repairs.

Shelley asks: Would anyone want to further delay needed maintenance and rebuilding, as politicians have been doing for years? The current situation is "dangerous," he says, "in the sense that public opinion could lead political leaders, or community leaders, to take actions that are very contrary to their community's long-term interests." Politicians react

Impelled by the mounting protests, political action seems inevitable. Some state legislators are pushing for reconsideration of the whole project. State Rep. Warren Tolman, a Democrat from Watertown, Mass., favors scaling back the secondary treatment facilities planned on Deer Island. Much of it is not necessary, he says, because the flow of waste water and sewage into the treatment plants is way down from estimates made in the '80s.

In Washington, Rep Barney Frank, whose district includes many towns in the MWRA district, comments, "I can't think of any governmental issue that has reached farther into people's lives."

He wants to lengthen the payoff period for MWRA bonds, so that the press for revenue can be eased, and to arrange a longer commitment of federal funds for the cleanup. Currently, the federal contribution is $100 million a year.

But in the longer term, says Mr. Frank, "We have to change the law." The Clean Water Act, in his view, has to be altered to include increased federal assistance and its requirement may have to be altered.

Frank is one politician that rate protesters speak kindly of. Their view of elected officials is generally scornful as the State House protesters made clear.

For them, Jordan has one message: If they do not rouse themselves to take an active interest in the water-rate revolt, they are likely to find themselves out of office.

***CORRECTION***

Correction for June 2 daily and June 4-10 world editions, correction printed on June 9, 1993

In the June 2 daily and the June 4-10 world editions of the Monitor, the page 6 article on the Boston-area water and sewer rate controversy wrongly referred to the $800 bill received by Lovie Elam of Milton, Mass., as a "quarterly" bill. It should have said "semi-annual."

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