SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

March 20, 2014

Pols seek to expand fund for water and sewer projects

BOSTON — As communities throughout the state struggle to replace crumbling water and sewer systems, lawmakers are homing in on ways to plug an ever-widening funding gap.

The sheer size of the needs facing local governments statewide — pegged by lawmakers at more than $21.4 billion in the next 20 years — is complicating those efforts, as are concerns about the state’s borrowing capacity.

The House is considering a bill to raise the spending cap for a low-interest, revolving loan program by $50 million a year to help local governments foot the bills for water, sewer and storm-water projects. The $138 million fund would be renamed the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust.

The current version of the bill is a fraction of an earlier proposal, which would have allowed $250 million in additional borrowing and spent $200 million on local projects. A Senate committee removed those provisions amid concerns about over-borrowing.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the legislation is a “step in the right direction,” but its funding is only a drop in the pan.

In 2012, a legislative task force called it one of the biggest fiscal challenges for local governments.

“Water and sewer pipes are typically out of sight and out of mind because they are underground, but they are crumbling under our feet,” said Beckwith, whose group lobbied hard for the $450 million in increased financing.

Salem has been spending $3 million to $4 million per year on water and sewer upgrades — work funded through a mix of local funds, federal grants and low-interest municipal bonds. Officials project the city’s long-term infrastructure needs at more than $100 million, said city engineer John Knowlton.

Gloucester, which has experienced several major water main breaks in recent years, has spent more than $100 million on system repairs in the past six years, and Public Works director Mike Hale estimates the city needs another $100 million to pay for its long-term infrastructure needs.

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