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Orange OKs program  to help fix septic systems

ORANGE — Help is on the way for homeowners who have a hard time coming up with the cash to replace their failing septic systems.

Residents approved moving forward with the Community Septic Management Program at the special town meeting earlier this month.

The program allows the town to borrow up to $300,000 from the state at no interest, to develop a septic management plan and make low-interest loans to homeowners in need of financial assistance to fix their septic system. The program was set up by the state so that more homeowners could keep in compliance with Title 5, the state law regulating home septic systems.

Participating communities identify areas in town that are environmentally sensitive to water pollution exacerbated by failed and inefficient septic systems. These neighborhoods are then prioritized in determining which homeowners receive the loans.

Selectmen recommended the program, but the Finance Committee did not, stimulating considerable debate on the town meeting floor.

Finance Committee Member Bob Stack said that while he thought highly of the program, the town was not ready to implement it. Stack’s objections focused primarily on the time required to coordinate it as the program is “heavy on administrative tasks,” and the town’s employees and volunteers are already stretched thin by a tight municipal budget.

Stack also said that the program holds the town liable for paying back all the money it borrows and loans out to homeowners even if homeowners default on their loans.

According the state’s website, if homeowners default on loan payments, the town then has a lien on the property. The town must pay back all the money it borrows from the state within 20 years, but can set the terms of loans to homeowners for a shorter period, providing some additional time to recoup the money from defaulted loans.

And as the town starts repaying the state a year or more after homeowners start making payments to the town, the town can accumulate homeowner payments, allowing the interest homeowners pay to off-set the risk of defaults.

While Stack argued against moving forward, volunteer interim Community Development Director Karl Bittenbender said if Orange didn’t apply this spring, the town may lose the opportunity to take advantage of the no-interest loans as the state may not have those funds next year. He said state officials informed him the funds were being drawn down rapidly by other towns.

Bittenbender added a $10,000 grant is also available to help pay for administration of the grant in the first year of the program. After that time, the town has the option to set aside a small percentage of the loan funds to pay for consulting services to defray administrative costs.

Selectmen’s Chairman Richard Sheridan told voters “When all is said and done, it’s not going to cost the town anything” and can help homeowners to keep their septic systems in good working order, improving water-quality conditions around the area. With the additional grant money, Sheridan noted that “we may even make something back.”

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