Biddeford voters Nov. 3 could see referendum questions that would allow the city to bond money for continued, mandated sewer separation work, as well as some other projects.  This 2019 photo shows contractors conducting sewer separation work on South Street. Journal Tribune file photo

BIDDEFORD — With interest rates low and with the city under federal and state mandates to continue sewer and stormwater separation projects, the Biddeford City Council is looking at a November bond package that could also include borrowing for other initiatives.

The council began discussions at a special meeting July 27 and were to continue talks at their regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 4, after the Courier’s print deadline.

The initial discussion ranged from the cost of the work the city must do over the next few years on the sewer separation project, to road and street work, sidewalks, and municipal and school buildings.

In a memo to the council first introduced in March, City Manager James Bennett produced a list of needs and cost estimates.

“As the council is very aware, the capital needs in the city (and school) are many,” he wrote. He said a five-year plan for continued CSO- (stormwater separation) work was submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection in February. Bennett said the CSO costs could be about $7.5 million over the next five years.

Bonding seems to be the only solution to keeping the city in compliance with the court- approved consent decree on sewer separation, he said, since neither paying cash or raising the sewer rates are practical solutions.

The council could approve bonding $5 million for CSO work over the next few years, Bennett said, and provide authorization to bond another $2 million to use as matching funds, should the city continue to obtain grants from the DEP as it has in the past.

Overall estimates of the amount of money needed for roads, sidewalks, municipal and school buildings and municipal radios for several city departments was provided to the council.

Council President John McCurry said he supported the two CSO bonds as did Councilor Amy Clearwater.

“The community center is an obvious place to put money … the same with City Hall … I don’t have a number, but strike while the iron is hot,” Clearwater said, noting current low interest rates.

“Will people be able to see the bigger picture?” asked Mayor Alan Casavant, adding if the bond figure on the ballot is excessive, all the projects could be jeopardized.

“I’m open to the discussion,” said Councilor Stephen St. Cyr. He acknowledged interest rates are low now – and believes they will still be low a year from now.

Councilor Norman Belanger said he thought he interest rates were “pretty close to rock bottom now, and doesn’t believe they’ll increase much “but a point makes a big difference” when borrowing in the millions.

“If we want people to invest in downtown, we have to do something with City Hall,” said Councilor Marc Lessard. “The Community Center — I’m ready to sell it and every asset sitting there on the books, doing nothing, collecting nothing. The market today is red hot …”

“I do believe the timing is right,” said Councilor William Emhiser, pointing to what he expects to be a “huge voter turnout” for the Nov. 3 election. “We’ll have so many people out there empowered to vote and they tell us whether they want (bonds) or not.”

Clearwater pointed out that the community center was always busy, pre-pandemic, but said maybe the city could sell it and build a new community center.

The current price tag for of the work that needs to be done includes $33 million to fix all of the city’s roads; $12 million for sidewalks; a total of about $27.5 million to put the city’s municipal buildings in order, $19.5 million for five of the city’s schools, and $4.2 million for radio communications for four city departments, plus the CSO work.

Casavant in an email noted that it would be far too expensive to bond all of the work needed at one time, but the estimates show the public just how much needs to be done and the costs involved to do it. Councilors will decide by mid-August how much, if any, to ask voters to bond.

Moody’s Investor Services assigned an A1 rating to Biddeford in March 2019.

In March, Bennett estimated interest rates from 1.5 to 2 percent, but told the council on July 27 the rates may now be lower.

Later, in an email, Casavant said he supported the two sewer separation projects, along with a bond question on roads and sidewalks.

“I am flexible on the other possibilities, as they all need to be done,” he said.

“The problem is that while borrowing money is cheap right now, via interest rates, the economy is sluggish, and putting too many questions that cost too much money might doom the questions,” Casavant said. “We need to aggressively ‘market’ the bonds to the voters, because every year of postponement drives up the cost, and, of course, if we do not do the (sewer separation) work, fines lurk in the horizon. Voters need to know all of the ramifications to not spending the money.”

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