Updated at 2:38 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015to include additional details from City Council President Kevin Jourdain about why state Chapter 40N is ill-suited for the city, including that its adoption would strip bonding authority from the City Council.
HOLYOKE — The City Council approved an order calling on state legislators to move a proposal to address the problem of unpaid sewer bills by giving Holyoke Water Works shut off authority over such customers.
In approving the order by voice vote Oct. 6, some councilors were critical of state Rep. Aaron M. Vega, D-Holyoke, without identifying him during the discussion at City Hall.
Vega said later that the House of Representatives legal staff have concerns about the step the City Council is seeking, existing laws are available to accomplish the goal and some councilors don’t understand the legislative process.
The order was filed by City Council President Kevin A. Jourdain and Ward 5 Councilor Linda L. Vacon:
“That the City Council calls upon our State Delegation to move the Home Rule Petition regarding the collection of sewer fees, which is in the Committee on 3rd reading, forward for adoption so that over $700,000 in unpaid sewer fees can be collected.”
The city has sought leverage in the form of the threat of shutting off sewer service as a way to force customers to pay overdue bills.
Hunting down such payment has been an issue for years and currently, the sewer fund has a $1.3 million deficit. The issue also is a dispute in the campaign for mayor as Mayor Alex B. Morse runs for a third term against business owner Fran O’Connell on Election Day Nov. 3.
Currently under state law, the city is unable to shut off sewer service despite a long-overdue bill and that means customers can let bills lag.
But, water can be shut off if a bill goes unpaid. So, the City Council has approved a measure aimed at arming the city with such a service-halting threat, asking that the state Legislature approve a home rule petition to permit the city to combine the billing of the sewer department and Holyoke Water Works.
Councilors questioned why legislators haven’t gotten the home rule petition approved. State Sen. Donald R. Humason, R-Westfield, also represents Holyoke but the measure has yet to reach the Senate.
“This is a ‘no-brainer,'” Jourdain said. “This is completely noncontroversial.”
Jourdain likened the straightforwardness to a football play where the running back is told to carry the ball into the end zone.
“The running back doesn’t get to say, ‘I only want to run it to the 20 yard line,'” Jourdain said.
Vacon said she co-sponsored the measure to prompt the legislative delegation to move.
“That’s what you get for having a part-time state rep,” Ward 2 Councilor Anthony Soto said.
Vega said in an email that Soto’s remark was unsurprising, given that Soto is upset about his elimination in the Sept. 22 preliminary election for mayor.
“To insinuate I am anything but fully committed to being the state rep for Holyoke is baseless and insulting. He has supported former opponents of mine, and is obviously upset about his loss in the recent mayoral primary. I find it disappointing he would use the council chamber to air political grudges,” Vega said.
“Moving forward, I will continue working diligently on behalf of my constituents,” he said.
Such work has drawn “tens of thousands of dollars” here for workforce development and the Police and Fire departments, along with being Holyokers’ advocate at the state level, he said.
Vega said House lawyers have questioned the approach the City Council seeks, which would allow for a combining of the billing for water and sewer services without merging those two departments. The sticking point among state officials is how the city could combine two different departments’ billing and not combine the actual departments, he said.
State officials instead have recommended the city adopt state law Chapter 40N, which would permit a combined water-sewer commission that would have authority to set rates and halt services in cases of unpaid bills, he said.
“First, the legislature does not rubber stamp special acts,” Vega said. “That may be frustrating to local officials, but it’s the truth.
“Second, the (House) committee on Third Reading is the committee where bills get a final review from legal counsel. Some councilors were assuming that review already took place. They were wrong. At this point House counsel does have concerns and those concerns have been communicated to the City Council on numerous occasions. There are no politics at play here,” he said.
But City Council President Kevin A. Jourdain said the home rule petition the council seeks doesn’t request authority to merge the billing of the water and sewer services.
“There is no request to do this. Firstly, we long ago went to combined billing. They both come in one envelope and have for years. What we are seeking now is authority to shut off the water service for nonpayment of the sewer portion of the bill,” Jourdain said.
Several factors make Chapter 40N ill-suited for the city, he said. Chapter 40N is a “cookie-cutter” step the state provides to merge water and sewer departments under the control of the mayor. A problem with such a merger is that while Holyoke Water Works is well run, the sewer department has deficits, he said.
Another concern is that adopting Chapter 40N would merge the water and sewer departments under the control of the mayor. That would eliminate a checks-and-balances step because currently the City Council appoints the three-member Water Commission that oversees Holyoke Water Works, he said.
Also, he said, while the City Council has authority to borrow money regarding water and sewer issues, merging the two departments under Chapter 40N would strip borrowing authority from the council and give that power to a commission that would govern the merged departments.
“There’s all kinds of dirty details when you get into it,” Jourdain said.