WINTERPORT, Maine — It can be hard to persuade people to vote against their own financial interests in order to support the greater community and environmental good.
But that’s exactly what happened last week in Winterport, when voters at the annual town meeting resoundingly decided to share the burden of paying $1.4 million toward a major upgrade to the sewage treatment facility that has been mandated by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
They voted that way even though the 305 ratepayers of the Winterport Water District — the customers who use and would have to pay for the upgrade to the facility — make up about just 14 percent of the town’s property taxpayers.
Winterport, a community of roughly 4,000 people, has 2,165 property taxpayers.
“We never thought this would pass,” Annaleis Hafford, the manager of the water district and a vice president at Olver Associates Inc., said Tuesday. “We wanted it to and we hoped we’d be successful, and we were. I’m very pleased. It was a grassroots effort.”
The water treatment plant at the Winterport Water District, a quasi-municipal water and sewer utility, serves just the village area of the rural, spread-out community. It was built 37 years ago, at a time when smaller communities did not always have to treat effluent, or sewage, as much as larger communities did, Hafford said. So the Winterport water treatment plant was designed to do only primary treatment and not secondary treatment, too.
The community’s wastewater is treated and then chlorinated to kill pathogens before it is discharged into the Penobscot River. But secondary treatment leaves wastewater much cleaner and clearer than primary treatment alone does, she said.
About 14 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notified district officials that it was going to revoke the waiver that allowed primary treatment in lieu of secondary treatment. While nobody has said that the discharged wastewater has had a direct impact on the river’s water quality, Winterport is upstream of an estuary, a natural habitat between river and maritime environments. That’s why the community lost its waiver.
“We spent quite a lot of time trying to work around it,” Hafford said. “But the Winterport Water District doesn’t have any money to fight this, and it really wasn’t anything we could get away from doing.”
So, for the last six years, she and others have worked to find grants to underwrite some of the costs of making the upgrades. They were able to find about $14.5 million in funding, more than 85 percent of which are loans. But the remaining $1.94 million would be a low-interest loan.
Doing secondary treatment to the town’s wastewater means that more than 85 percent of total suspended solids and biochemical oxygen demand will be removed, rather than the 40 and 30 percent, respectively, that is taken out now.
“It’ll be very clean effluent,” Hafford said.
Still, the cost to upgrade the facility is enormous, especially for a district with such few ratepayers. Most of their combined sewer and water bills already total more than $1,700 per year, and asking them to shoulder the costs of the upgrade by themselves would be a painful task.
If voters at the town meeting had rejected the article asking the town to share the burden through taxation, rate payers would have had to pay an average of $306 per year extra to their sewer bill.
But by sharing the cost, each property taxpayer in the community will have to pay an extra $37 per year.
Despite the passage, not everyone who spoke at town meeting was in favor of this move. Some of those who live “out back” in Winterport and must pay for their wells and septic systems, did not want to approve the article.
But a large majority of voters did, including Mary Anne Royal, who lives in town but who has a well and septic system. She said that some at the meeting pointed out that the public school and many local businesses are customers of the Winterport Water District, so more residents benefit than just those who pay the district’s bills.
“I sympathize with the people out back who say they have all those expenses. I have those expenses, too,” she said. “In my estimation, it’s part of our responsibility to take care of our waste, whether we personally generate it or not.”
Also, she liked the idea of having a burden be shared, and was happy that others who came to the meeting agreed. The article needed a majority to pass, which it easily received.
“The big point for me was the whole idea of community taking care of each other. I was more than happy to help out my neighbor,” Royal said. “And, equally important, making sure that what goes into the Penobscot River is as clean as it can be.”