The Windham Town Council voted Tuesday to leave aside for now engineering plans for a new sewer system to instead concentrate on determining just how the project would be funded.

A mix of funding sources – including users, taxpayers in general, grants, loans and the town’s Tax Increment Financing District – could be mined for the project, according to Barry Sheff, an engineering consultant. Residents are going to want to know who will pay for what, Sheff said, when they go to the polls, likely in November 2012, to give the project the go-ahead.

“We’ve come to realize the next most important step for you to take is really developing this financial plan,” Sheff told the Windham Town Council Tuesday night, before councilors voted unanimously to focus on funding options. “The engineering pieces are important. I don’t mean to say they’re not. But in terms of critical path elements when I think of executing this project, we’ve come to realize, at this point, it’s more important for you to understand the total financial plan for the project and help your residents understand what that means and inform them so they can understand the project.”

Residents have already provided some feedback on the cost of the project. Reaction to the original $67.8 million proposal, both by residents and councilors, was decidedly negative, and the plan has since been scaled back considerably, to an estimated $37.9 million.

That reaction, at public hearings held last year, is likely a preview of the coming year as town officials prepare to put the sewer project before voters in an especially hard economic climate.

But officials are right to pursue the sewer project. The lack of a sewer in North Windham hinders business development and damages the water quality in the North Windham aquifer. Neither may be a pressing problem now, but they both will be at some point in the future, and it is the town’s obligation to have a plan in place, whether this is the right time to implement it or not.

It will be a difficult sell if town officials urge residents to support the plan next November. Councilors are right to focus on funding, as that will be the center of any debate next campaign season. But while cost is certainly an issue, the bigger concern should be how the lack of sewer would impede growth and impact groundwater quality in Windham.

Town Manager Tony Plante framed the issue well in an interview with the Lakes Region Weekly earlier this year when talking about the water quality studies and the role of the sewer in economic development.

“What we’ve identified is a problem,” he said. “And part of what people need to do is ask themselves, how much of a problem do we think this really is, how much of a problem do we think rising levels of nitrates in the groundwater is? How big of an issue do we think this is for resource protection? How big of an issue do we think this is for the future economic development of the community?”

Ben Bragdon is the managing editor of Current Publishing. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter.

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