The Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority is one of the region’s lesser-known public institutions. But the authority plays a vital role in the region’s infrastructure, dealing with the treatment and disposal of wastewater. Now, a proposed expansion of the authority to Stratford, some 15 miles down the coast, has provoked an intense debate in that town.

Last year, Stratford Mayor John Harkins proposed the merger with the GNHWPCA, often referred to as “regionalization,” as a means of raising money and alleviating the town’s debt burden. Earlier this month, Stratford’s 10-member town council approved the deal, through which Stratford’s wastewater treatment infrastructure would become controlled by the GNHWPCA. But even though the council approved the deal in an 8–1 vote, fierce resistance to regionalization has taken root in the town. Those opposed to joining the GNHWPCA have launched a petition drive, which they hope will force Harkins to submit the merger to a townwide up-down referendum.

The deal comprises two portions. The first concerns the political incorporation of Stratford into the GNHWPCA’s organizational structure. Stratford will gain two seats on the authority’s 11-member Board of Directors, and will contribute about $500,000 to its $2.7 million administrative budget, said Gabriel Varca, the GNHWPCA’s finance director. The other four towns under its umbrella — New Haven, East Haven, Hamden and Woodbridge — will contribute the remaining nine members.

The other part of the deal involves financial incorporation. According to official documents, the GNHWPCA will buy the reserves and assets of Stratford’s current wastewater treatment authority — including the sewage plant and the land upon which it sits — for roughly $11 million. It will also relieve the $37 million of debt Stratford’s authority currently holds.

Stratford will receive an immediate $5.1 million transfer of funds from the GNHWPCA, according to the town’s projected budget for fiscal year 2016. That cash transfer has led many to describe the proposal as a stopgap measure meant to fill a budget gap.

For many in Stratford, the deal seems dubious. Eddie Goodrich, a prominent community leader, has been involved with the anti-regionalization movement orchestrated by the group “For Stratford.” He said that selling the town’s sewage plant will deprive Stratford of its ability to control its own sewage tax rates, putting the town at the mercy of the GNHWPCA.

“We are selling off a town asset for peanuts, in my opinion, and we don’t have to do that,” he said. “This is something valuable for the municipality to have — we can actually make money on it, and it can do a service for the town.”

Goodrich questioned why Stratford would sell the wastewater plant to the GNHWPCA for a mere $11 million — he suggested the entire infrastructure could be worth up to $100 million.

Goodrich added that For Stratford has so far gathered over 1,000 signatures supporting their petition; the group asserts that it needs roughly 3,200 signatures, or one-10th of the town’s voting population, to force a referendum on the issue. He said most people whom he has encountered have expressed their dissatisfaction at the speed at which the Town Council passed the deal. Though representatives from the mayor’s office did not respond to request for comment, Harkins described the deal in an April 9 editorial in the Stratford Star as a means of protecting the environment at the lowest cost while also providing a “greater return on investment.”

He wrote that the protestors against regionalization are mostly composed of “a small faction in our town that continues to engage in petty politics by making baseless claims and ignoring the facts” who “[choose] to engage in the politics of fear.”

The legality of the hypothetical referendum has come into question. In an opinion issued on April 9, the day after the Council approved the deal, Town Attorney Timothy Bishop stated that no right to a public referendum exists in this case. Though the Town Charter does provide for the right to a referendum, Bishop posits that state statutes regarding the powers of towns override that right.

The dissenters disagree. Goodrich said that For Stratford believes its actions are unambiguously legal. Mark Dugas, For Stratford’s lawyer, said in an op-ed published in the Connecticut Post earlier this week that the statutes Bishop cites only come into effect once Stratford has already become a member of the GNHWPCA — and because not all of the member towns have assented, Stratford has not yet acceded to the GNHWPCA.

Whether or not For Stratford will gather the requisite 3,200 signatures remains uncertain, but Goodrich said the organization has heard mostly positive feedback.

During an East Haven Town Council meeting earlier this month, Varca said Stratford, not GNHWPCA, proposed the merger. He said the GNHWPCA and its constituent towns would not agree to the deal unless it presented some substantial benefit.

Ward 17 Alder and GNHWPCA board member Alphonse Paolillo Jr. told the News that the alders will consider the “best option” for taxpayers when the proposal comes before the Board of Alders for approval later this spring. He suggested that Stratford’s regionalization may help to reduce costs of treatment and lessen the environmental impact of the merger.

“Regionalization offers an opportunity to identify cost efficiencies across the board,” Paolillo said. “And there are environmental benefits — we all treat [Long Island Sound] as an asset of every community. Discharging water into the sound — that’s something we don’t want to be doing.”

Paolillo added that the GNHWPCA’s plants have a strong record on environmental safety, and they hope to bring this record to Stratford.

Varca also identified possible cost reductions as part of the authority’s motivation for regionalization. Stratford has a higher per capita income and more expansive sewage coverage than the four current member municipalities, he said.

Because potential creditors’ financial assessments often take into account those two factors, Varca is confident that bringing Stratford into the GNHWPCA would lead to a better bond rating, thus reducing the cost of borrowing. In the long term, he said, those savings, while small annually, could amount to millions of dollars and lower rates paid by residents.

The deal will involve savings for Stratford as well, Varca said.

“Whether Stratford enters into regionalization or not, their costs will increase,” he said. “If regionalization does not happen, their costs will increase even more.” He pointed to the need for capital improvements in Stratford’s plant and the requirement to meet federal environmental standards as sources of Stratford’s projected cost increases.

Despite the talk of “merging” Stratford’s system with that of the GNHWPCA’s four towns, no physical merger will take place. Stratford shares no geographic border with any of the four towns; regionalization would merely involve placing Stratford’s infrastructure under the GNHWPCA’s purview. Though the WPCA will purchase Stratford’s plant, none of New Haven’s waste will be treated there.