Herbst talks about Trumbull-Bridgeport sewer quandary in letter

First Selectman Tim Herbst says that the projected increases in the state plan are more stable than the current plan.
First Selectman Tim Herbst says that the projected increases in the state plan are more stable than the current plan.

The decision for Trumbull to connect to Bridgeport’s sewage treatment plant was made in the 1960s under the administration of First Selectman Clarence Heimann.

In the 50 years following that decision, key decision makers decided to expand the number of homes in Trumbull that had sewers. While the number of sewer users expanded, no realistic plan was implemented to build our own sewage treatment plant. History will show that over this 50-year period Trumbull kept making a colossal error. Without building our own treatment plant 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, the Town of Trumbull only compounded this problem.  Rather than making ourselves decision makers in control of the rates our residents would pay, we instead repeatedly relegated and subordinated ourselves to the position of customers with no decision-making authority.

Instead of Trumbull leaders and Trumbull citizens determining our sewer rates, for nearly 50 years our rates have been established by either the City of Bridgeport or a court-sponsored mediator.

With this arrangement, as the number of homes with sewers increased, the volume of flow we would send to Bridgeport also increased. With increased volume comes increased cost.  Compounding this problem is the diametrically different sewer systems in both communities. Our system is a modern, separated system. Bridgeport’s system is much older, failing and environmentally flawed. In light of a failing system that has been neglected for decades without needed capital investments and upgrades, the cost to maintain Bridgeport’s system is one of the highest in the state. Since we are customers rather than decision makers, the cost of upgrades to the Bridgeport system are borne through sewer use rates passed onto us by Bridgeport.

In 1998, after years of litigation, First Selectman David Wilson and Mayor Joseph Ganim reached an agreement between the two communities. At that time, Trumbull knew that Bridgeport’s costs would skyrocket, but did nothing until 2009, when my administration initiated discussions concerning real initiatives to demand lower rates or seek alternative solutions.  Our contract with Bridgeport did not “expire” but was in fact terminated by Bridgeport in an attempt to force Trumbull to enter a regionalized sewer authority with Bridgeport. In creating a regional sewer authority, the City of Bridgeport argued that it would be able to sell its treatment plant and other appurtenances for cash, arguably to be used to artificially reduce Bridgeport’s tax rate with one-time revenue. The City of Bridgeport was under the incorrect assumption that once an authority was created, there would be an infusion of a $40-million payment by a newly created authority for infrastructure — infrastructure I might add that has already been bought and paid for by Trumbull ratepayers through their fees.

My position on this issue has been consistent and clear.  I believe the only solution for Trumbull and Bridgeport is a regional result. Notwithstanding this belief, I cannot support a regionalized model that requires Trumbull users to pay for parts of a system they do not even use.  This is a major point of disagreement between my administration and Mayor Finch’s administration.  If we only use the West Side plant, why should Trumbull users through their rates be required to subsidize capital improvements to the East Side plant — a plant we do not even use.

After Bridgeport realized that a regional authority would not proceed with a $40-million infusion of one-time revenue, the Finch Administration attempted to bypass the Trumbull WPCA and directly bill our users based upon a rate that was set at the sole discretion of Bridgeport, with no input from Trumbull. Bridgeport also attempted to issue a tax levy against Trumbull’s bank accounts.  Both of those attempts were successfully defeated by Trumbull town attorneys.

Since the City of Bridgeport cannot unilaterally bill our users, levy our bank accounts or get enough money by way of regionalization, Bridgeport has determined that it no longer has any need for the Trumbull users and therefore has suggested we find another avenue to treat our wastewater. If Trumbull leaves, the Bridgeport WPCA will lose roughly 20% of its revenue source.

I do not believe that Trumbull can afford to build its own sewage treatment plant for three primary reasons:

  • Taxpayers cannot absorb the $120-million to $140-million cost to build our own treatment plant.

  • There is not a viable location to build our own treatment plant.

  • It is highly unlikely that the State of Connecticut would realistically grant us approval to build our own plant when it is encouraging more regional collaboration.

While Trumbull cannot absorb this cost exclusively, it should not share in the estimated half-billion dollar cost to upgrade Bridgeport’s system if Bridgeport holds firm in its position that Trumbull should pay for upgrades to parts of a system we do not even use. This goes to fundamental fairness and equal protection under the law.  The Greater New Haven WPCA has been successful with its regional authority because the City of New Haven recognized that to get buy-in from adjoining suburban communities, there would have to be shared benefit, shared burden.

The City of New Haven bears the exclusive cost of parts of the system used exclusively by it.  Given the current administration’s continued and deliberate attempts to adversely harm Trumbull ratepayers, I believe the most realistic solution is for the Town of Trumbull to regionalize with another adjoining municipality that already has a separated sewer system with stable rates. If we were able to connect to a more modern system, the connection and any upgrades would be less costly. Further, more users in the system would lead to greater rate stabilization and reduction for all users.

Our job as a community is to analyze all options and pursue a plan that stabilizes and even reduces sewer rates. Based upon the current position taken by the Finch Administration, I cannot and will not allow Trumbull ratepayers to be treated as if they are an endless ATM machine paying for the bad decisions and bad management of others.  Unless and until the current administration negotiates in good faith, or there is a change of administration in Bridgeport, our best option is to regionalize with another adjoining community, like Fairfield, as an example. As the race for mayor of Bridgeport is underway, every Bridgeport resident should ask the candidates for mayor the following question: if Bridgeport loses 20% of its revenue from Trumbull, who is going to make up the difference and will this mean an increase in sewer use fees for Bridgeport residents?

I’m looking forward to responses from all of the candidates for mayor of Bridgeport.

Tim Herbst is the first selectman of the Town of Trumbull.