The Searsport Select Board appointed a new fire chief on Tuesday. Antonio Rivera is set to replace former fire chief Andrew Webster, who resigned in July after he was charged in connection with embezzlement. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Voters will decide the fate of Searsport’s wastewater treatment plant — and whether the town is in compliance with Maine Department of Environmental Protections standards — at a special town meeting next week.

On Tuesday, voters will be asked to approve a $11.23 million project to build a new wastewater treatment plan, authorize the town to accept the last $2.34 million needed to fund it and authorize town officials to accept any future opportunities for funding. 

This will be the second time Searsport are asked to approve the wastewater project. They voted in favor of it and a portion of the funding at a town meeting in July 2021, Town Manager James Gillway said. Tuesday’s meeting is effectively asking voters the same question as in 2021, with a request to approve the last funding source the town needs to move forward.

“We’re getting a secondary endorsement of the public to make sure that everybody’s still on the same page,” Gillway said.

This project has been in the works for five years. Although the town initially wanted to have this project completed by the end of 2022, it had to be delayed when the bids that came in last spring were more expensive than the estimate. With the final pieces of funding and a contract now secured, the town needs voters’ approval on Tuesday in order to seal the deal.

“Without its approval, we will not be doing the rebuild,” Gillway said at the Searsport Select Board at the Jan. 3 meeting.

The town needs to replace the 35-year-old wastewater treatment plant on Navy Street. Gillway said the plant is aging to the point of disrepair.

“It’s falling apart and out of compliance with future licensing for the Maine Department of Environmental Protections,” Gillway said.

Gillway said in April the plant serves around 630 homes in Searsport. The town has a total of about 756 households, according to 2021 U.S. Census data.

The new water treatment system will use a biological breakdown process and UV lights to treat the sewage, instead of using chemicals. This, Gillway said, will be more environmentally friendly and make the water much cleaner before it empties into Penobscot Bay.

Searsport is paying for the wastewater plant with loans and funds from different government programs, including the Maine DEP, Northern Borders Regional Commission, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The town had already secured $8.9 million in funding.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to approve a $1.15 million grant from the USDA and another $1.2 million loan with an interest rate of up to 2.657 percent as the town pays that loan back over the course of 28 years. There will also be a general article for voters to reauthorize the whole project.

When a request for proposals was sent out, Gillway said the best bid from a New Hampshire based construction company was $2.34 million more than the initial estimates due to rising costs of materials and labor. In addition to needing more funding, the town also has to wait for water temperatures for the work to begin.

“We’re not starting in the middle of winter where there’s a disadvantage to go full speed ahead,” he said.

Gillway can’t think of any reasons why the town would vote down the project, though he said he’s been in the job long enough to expect the unexpected.

In the event that voters do reject the project, the town will either have to hold another special town meeting or find alternate ways to borrow money. Gillway said alternative means of funding won’t be ideal because they could increase sewer rates. Ultimately, though, the town wants to get the project going as soon as possible since the town needs to be in compliance with Maine DEP standards.

“We so desperately need to get this project done that we had no option but to seek more funding,” Gillway said.