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Center residents worry second circuit breaker might trip

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HARVARD — When Town Meeting voters previously approved the Town Center Sewer Project, one of the “circuit breakers” they put in place to control costs limited the selectmen’s borrowing authority to no more than 10 percent above $2 million.

That circuit breaker was tripped by a contract low bid of $2.4 million plus a 5 percent “contingency,” for related costs such as police details and other extras. The cost overage prompted selectmen to call a Special Town Meeting for Thursday night, Aug. 18, at which time voters will be asked to approve additional borrowing of $545,000.

The higher cost covers DEP-mandated upgrades to the existing “package plant” septic system the new sewer district will tie into and which now serves the school. Not only did the Department of Environmental Protection require the upgrades to grant a permit, it would have required the fix anyway, having determined that the system was in failure when it was inspected.

As the Building Committee waited on word from DEP to get the permit, there was some back and forth as to whether a design that TCS Building Committee project engineers came up with would be acceptable. But in the end, the DEP apparently held out for its own, more stringent, requirements.

The lender is SRF, a state-funded program that provides, low-interest loans to municipalities for water and sewer projects. TCS Building Committee Chairman Chris Ashley told the selectmen at their Aug. 2 meeting that the agency has agreed to front the additional money. Now, it’s up to the voters to decide if they want to go the extra mile.

But it was the second circuit breaker — which sets a ceiling on betterment costs — that sparked worry among a handful of Town Center residents, prompting the selectmen to call a mid-cycle meeting Monday afternoon to discuss the issue.

In a conversation with Harvard Hillside reporter Tuesday morning, Selectman Peter Warren said that about 65 Town Center property owners will potentially be hooked up to the new system and will pay those betterments, but only five came to a citizen’s meeting a couple of them organized and that he attended Monday night.

Asked if residents who don’t live or own property in the center would be affected by the betterments, Warren said it’s a townwide issue because town buildings are involved.

Although individuals and businesses served by the sewer district will absorb the lion’s share — 68 percent — of construction and operating costs through betterments, the other 32 percent of the betterments will be for town buildings in the center, such as Town Hall. That cost will be borne by taxpayers, Warren explained.

The residents at the meeting posited that since one circuit breaker was tripped, the second may follow, Warren said, but by then, in their view, they’d have no choice but to say yes. The circuit breaker at issue would trip if projected betterments rise above 10-percent beyond the per unit threshold of $17,000.

And if STM voters said no at that point?

Contacted Tuesday afternoon about the late-breaking flap, Selectman Ron Ricci told the Harvard Hillside that the board has done what it said it would do if projected costs tripped the “circuit breakers” set by Town Meeting voters.

“I’m not happy that it’s costing more, … but we went back to the voters for borrowing authority when the cost went up, as agreed,” he said.

Ricci, too, attended the citizens’ meeting. “As I pointed out to them, people agreed that this (sewer project) would be done,” Ricci said. And the school septic system will have to be fixed even if the project does not go forward, he added.

At this point, that seems almost unthinkable.

The problem exists. A high water table and lots of ledge created it long before the town existed. Now, septic systems in the center have failed. Some people had to install pricey alternatives and “mounded” systems to meet Title 5 requirements. Further development of any kind is hindered by this issue, and efforts have been launched before to address it.

Ricci served on one of the sewer committees, as did Selectman Tim Clark. “The problem won’t go away,” he said. “This may be the last best opportunity in this decade to do this.”

Planning has been ongoing for over a year. The loan has been secured and the elements are lined up, including an amended system design plan that meets DEP’s specifications and accounts for most, but not all, of the added cost.

Thursday night, voters will decide what, if anything, happens next.

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