Keeping a growing community on course toward a promising future requires our elected leaders to engage in both short-game tactics and long-game strategy. The short game draws our attention each year at this time as the Board of Education, Board of Finance, and the Legislative Council try to hold down the tax rate without gutting services in ways that amount to negligence. It is a matter of getting out information and then getting out the vote. The long game, however, may ultimately affect the overall vitality of the community in more profound and lasting ways. With that in mind, the Board of Finance last week approved funding for the initial phase of a sewer extension project in Hawleyville that should help Newtown grow in a more balanced and productive way.
Sewer projects are at their core environmental programs, protecting our sources of clean water and by extension the public health. Because of the amounts of wastewater generated by large-scale commercial development, sewer lines and associated wastewater treatment are also economic development programs, generating needed services, jobs, and economic stimuli to a community. In environmentally sensitive areas like Newtown, one is not possible without the other. Taking it a step farther, economic development can have a stabilizing influence on residential property tax rates by adding to the grand list of taxable properties without directly adding to school enrollment. In a school district that spends roughly $13,500 per student each year, that is a significant tax consideration. So sewer projects are property tax stabilization programs as well.
In the long game, whether your cause is environmental quality, economic growth, educational excellence, or tax relief, sewer projects, when properly sited, are a fundamental first step toward each of those goals. Newtown has been talking about sewer lines in the Exit 9 area in Hawleyville for decades now. Newtown’s Plan of Conservation says the area is ideally suited to meet the town’s economic development needs “in a manner consistent with the desire for balanced development in a fashion that will enhance Newtown’s community character.”
According to First Selectman Pat Llodra, the Exit 9 area is also the last open site along the I-84 corridor between Waterbury and the New York State line capable of sustaining development. It has stayed that way all these years largely because of the expense: an estimated $5 million to connect to the Danbury sewer system. However, by modifying the system and targeting only tracts with the best potential to generate economic benefits (and user fees), the town can realize, as Public Works Director Fred Hurley put it, “80 percent of the development at half the cost.” The $2.5 million system is covered by the $2.8 million designated for the project this year in the town’s capital improvement plan.
As we turn up the heat on our annual short-game budget debate, uncertain of the outcome, we take comfort in knowing the town now has the opportunity to take a strong position in that other, most important long game out in Hawleyville. Taxpayers will be asked to accept or reject the bonding request for this project at a town meeting scheduled for Thursday, February 13, at 7 pm, in the Newtown Municipal Center Council Chambers. We urge approval of the financing.