WOONSOCKET — Keeping a campaign promise to do so before the end of 2010, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine last week seated an advisory board to evaluate the costly and controversial options for building a new water treatment plant.
A public interest advocacy group, the Woonsocket Taxpayers Coalition, has been openly urging the mayor to create such a panel. The group, headed by Steve Lima, who challenged Fontaine in the 2009 election for mayor, has questioned Fontaine’s support for a plan that calls for buying water from Pawtucket, at least for a time, to satisfy all of the local needs.
But Fontaine said he did not cave to pressure from the WTC in seating the ad hoc panel. He said he always intended to seat such a panel, much as the city did in the 1990s when it privatized and refurbished the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, another pricey venture.
Nor was Lima, who had openly campaigned for a seat on the panel, among the appointees, said Fontaine, though the mayor points out that he did choose two people for the seven-member panel who are members of the WTC. Fontaine wants people on the panel who are open-minded, a qualification Lima does not meet, he said, because he has been a strident opponent of the so-called pipeline option.
Fontaine rejected the notion that the Water Advisory Board will be a rubberstamp for the administration. The panel’s mission and duty, he said, will be to make a recommendation to the City Council that is in the best interest of the city, regardless of whether it jibes with the administration’s preferences.
“If they come to a different conclusion and they can convince the council of that — I have no personal stake in this,” said the mayor. “We have to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”
The members of the panel are:
Owen Bebeau, a former city councilman with a background in finance who currently serves in an administrative capacity at the Woonsocket Housing Authority.
Alan Rivers, a local construction contractor with ties to the WTC James Cournoyer, an outspoken member of the WTC who works as a financial analyst for Textron.
Paul Levreault, an employee of the Woonsocket Housing Authority who is married to Diane Pepin of Pepin Lumber, an early advocate of the “buy local” campaign.
Matthew Tessitore, an environmental technician who works for RI Analytical Laboratories. Tessitore has a master’s degree in environmental sciences and a strong interest in water quality issues.
City Councilmen Dan Gendron and Chris Beauchamp.
The city is under state and federal mandates to upgrade the Manville Road water treatment plant by March 2013 to eliminate the discharge of filtration pollutants into the Blackstone River and improve the quality of drinking water.
Engineers from Camp Dresser McKee have proposed a $55 million plan that includes dismantling the existing plant and replacing it — at least for a time — with a pipeline allowing the city to buy drinking water from Pawtucket. The city would build a new water treatment plant on the site of the existing one perhaps two years later.
The alternative is to build a new plant just over the city line in North Smithfield. The latter option comes with a slightly lower price tag — about $50 million — but it doesn’t include what the city will end up paying in property taxes to North Smithfield, a tab that could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, forever, according to the mayor.
Fontaine says he also favors the pipeline option first because it lays the groundwork for a regional water system that would allow Woonsocket to sell its substantial reserves of raw water to other communities in northern Rhode Island at a time of increasing demand. In that way, said Fontaine, the project would enable the city to offset the costs of the project and develop new revenue streams that will stabilize the city’s finances in the years ahead.