Boston Asks: What Cost a Glass of Water? Nationally Mandated Cleanup Takes a Heavy Toll on Local Taxpayers, and Citizens Mobilize to Protest Skyrocketing Water and Sewer Rates

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REMEMBER the property-tax revolt, which led to rate caps in California and Massachusetts and forced state and local governments to reorganize the way they do business?

A new grass-roots revolt is brewing in Massachusetts. The source of discontent this time is water and sewer rates. But to angry citizens staging a protest in front of the State House or planning to picket President Clinton when he comes to Boston June 19, the complaint is similar: money snatched from local people by a government out of touch with the people.

The heart of the controversy is the federally mandated cleanup of Boston Harbor, a murky body of water that evokes memories of the Boston Tea Party and yearly receives millions of gallons of sewage and waste water from 43 area communities. This huge plumbing operation is overseen by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), created in the early 1980s for the cleanup project.

The cost for building new sewage treatment facilities on the harbor islands, and for rebuilding much of the aging water-distribution system, is estimated at $6 billion. In a time of belt-cinching by state and federal governments, most of that cost has come to rest squarely on local rate payers. Water bills tripling

Accounts of water and sewer bills tripling and quadrupling in recent years abound. Lovie Elam, an anti-MWRA activist from Milton, Mass., says her three-person household now pays quarterly bills of $800. "They're absolutely phenomenal - at least three times higher over eight years."

While the particulars apply only to Boston and surrounding towns, Americans elsewhere may find much here to relate to. Scott Mackey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, points, for example, filtration and testing mandates in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act passed in 1987.

The requirements come unaccompanied by federal money, and small cities and rural communities will find it "very expensive," says Mr. Mackey.

In Massachusetts, legislators last week frantically tacked a number of MWRA-related amendments onto a $15.5 billion budget bill. Among these were a $18 million state subsidy for sewer rates, a demand that the MWRA change its population-based billing formula (a formula thought by many to penalize the suburbs), and a move to put the beleaguered agency under the governor's control.

Responding to the problem at the grass-roots level, Donald Jordan, a real estate agent from Chelsea, co-founded Stop This Outrageous Project (STOP) - a grass-roots group that has grown into a multitown coalition. But the analogy to the tax revolt of the late 1970s and early '80s does not really capture the spirit of STOP, he says. "You know what's going on with these fees?" asks Mr. Jordan, a large, energetic man who wore a blue baseball cap with "STOP" across the front at a recent rally on the State House steps. "Taxation without representation!"

Jordan and other leaders of the water-rate revolt prefer to draw parallels to 1776. They describe the MWRA as an unelected "authority" accountable to no one.

"You can't get at them - you can't vote them out," complains Mike Deluca, who heads a town meeting study committee in the South Shore community of Weymouth that has been compiling "facts" about the water authority and the harbor cleanup for years. Weymouth was first on a growing list of towns that have refused to pay their MWRA bills.

Weymouth's refusal wasn't so much an act of rebellion, says Mr. Deluca, as "a desperate financial act by a community that didn't have the money." Weymouth has over $500,000 in sewer fees it hasn't collected from financially pinched residents, says Deluca. "How can the MWRA expect us to pay up immediately, " he asks.

The agency has a big stick to wield against reluctant towns. It is authorized to simply take the amount due out of state revenue that would normally be shared with a community. …