The Waitsfield Select Board, after hearing again from members of the Waitsfield Water Commission, remains steadfast in its insistence that water system users “share the pain” of paying for the cost of a water main break caused by a VTrans contractor.
The 2013 incident left the town with a $129,548 bill after the town took the state to court and was forced to settle during mediation. Since that case was settled this spring, the select board has been in discussions with the water commission asking that system users pay a portion of the repair costs.
At the board’s June 26 meeting, water commissioners Pete Reynells and Bill Parker addressed the board enumerating the reasons why they felt all town taxpayers should shoulder the burden of that repair versus system users.
Reynells pointed out that the town acted unilaterally when the accident occurred, installing a temporary fix and seeking permits for a permanent solution and having that work done but without consultation with the water commission.
He suggested that the town may have been better served by leaving the temporary fix in place and trying to force the state’s hand in terms of causing a repair to happen by putting that responsibility back onto the state.
“I think we should have been more involved as the water commission. We were not involved in the process and now that you’ve settled you want users to pay the bill even though the fire hydrants which protect everybody are being paid for by the users. Users are already paying for the system and if the town pays for the repairs, the users are still paying through their property taxes. That’s double dipping,” Reynells said.
Bill Parker said that it was apparent at the time of the water main break that the permanent solution would require rerouting the system and that there was a question about how it would get paid for.
At the time of the accident and moving forward, the town obtained a line of credit to deal with the repair.
“The beauty of the town being able to come on the spot and say we’ll make sure this will get done clouded some of the reasoning that would have gone along with a more prudent approach that asked who is going to pay,” Parker said.
“At the time, water commissioner and select board member Scott Kingsbury said that the users would never pay and we’re still on that statement,” Parker continued.
“The water commission was not allowed to know all the fact here. We were in the dark through the negotiations, mediation and the conclusions until one day we were told that the select board wants us to pay for this. We had no part in this at all,” he added.
He listed reasons why users alone should not bear the cost of the repairs including the fact that the water system is a town asset and one that brings fire protection to the whole town. He noted that 100 users pay for a system that benefits 1,900 people.
He concurred with Reynells that asking system users to share the costs associated with the break amounts to double taxation.
Parker explained to the board how the water commission was working to create reserve funds that will last and suffice for the life of the asset and its debt. He said that the commission has an emergency account with about $15,000 in it and allowed as how using those funds to share the costs with the town would make more sense than for the water commission to take those funds and try to relitigate the case.
Select board chair Paul Hartshorn took issue with the notion that the select board hadn’t done its best on behalf of the town and said, “We were fighting a big giant,” in reference to taking on VTrans.
“We got bulldozed by the state,” he added.
Board member Sal Spinosa reiterated his previously stated position that the pain must be shared among taxpayers and system users.
Parker noted that if the water commission uses its emergency fund for this it will realistically result in increased rates which is an anathema to the water commission’s economic model which calls for stable rates and increased users to make the system economically viable and allow for the creation of emergency and reserve funds.
“We’ll have to raise rates and get a bigger reserve if, going forward, we are responsible for these types of repairs. If users have to fix it, we’re going to need a bigger reserve and have to raise rates or go back for a new bond,” Parker pointed out.
Parker said he’d take the issue back to the water commission for one more discussion.