By Kara Herlihy and Lisa Loomis
The Waitsfield Select Board has appointed a new task force to determine whether the town will bring a new proposal for municipal water and/or wastewater back to voters.
The water and wastewater projects were voted down at Town Meeting, prompting the select board to go back to the voters with questions about why the bond votes failed and what people do or don't want in terms of those municipal services.
At the April 14 hearing, board members discussed whether people who do not live in Waitsfield should serve on the task force, and then had a lengthy discussion of whether the town could or should spend any more money on engineering for the project, in light of the Town Meeting vote results.
At Town Meeting, Article 1, which asked for permission to spend $7.5 million for municipal water, was voted down, 442 to 398. The second article (phase one), which called for $5.6 million for public wastewater, was voted down, 484 to 336. Article 3 (phase two) called for $6.5 million for public wastewater and was voted down, 297 to 254.
Town administrator Valerie Capels explained to the board that Phelps Engineering, the firm the town has been using for this project, had prepared cost estimates for assisting the town with projecting costs for possible new solutions. A spreadsheet explaining those costs shows $11,000 to $15,000 in new expenditures, which made some members of the select board uncomfortable, given the vote.
"I'm not in favor of spending any more money, but I haven't seen that voiced by voters, a request that we not spend money. If that petition we've heard about requesting we spend no more money has not been received, can we work?" asked board member Bill Parker.
"The voters said no to the projects and now we're thinking of spending $11,000 to $15,000 that we haven't been authorized to spend," said board member Paul Hartshorn.
"We spent $1.3 million on engineering to try and get this project through. For another $15,000 we're going to try and make sure we know all our options and that the voters do too," board member Roy Hadden said.
After further discussion, the board talked by phone to John Kiernan, principal engineer for the project from Phelps Engineering. Kiernan heard the board's concerns about spending money, given the vote, and offered to work on the project without charging the town, on the assumption that his services could be funded through grants that the town can still receive if the water project goes forward.
Prior to this week's meeting, Capels and board chair Charlie Hosford hosted the second of two public forums on the no vote. The second forum was held on Thursday, April 10, at the Valley Players Theater.
Capels spoke on behalf of select board member Williams and the select board at the forum. Once again Capels asked residents if there was a single reason they voted no on water and wastewater and if they felt they were properly informed?
MARGIN OF DEFEAT
Capels noted the close vote, and said, "In our case, the margin of defeat was not that great."
Arno Noack presented the 80 signatures he had gathered via a Village Grocery petition that called for the town to cease spending any more money on the project, and drop it all together.
Noack said, "People want to see the project killed. It is far too expensive. Don't burden the taxpayers; it's the wrong time. Don't spend another penny."
Anne Marie Harmon said that she was a certified water operator, and that "the water project is self supporting. It won't cost the taxpayers a thing." She also suggested the town investigate new technology in septic design, which utilizes wetlands for waste treatment.
Kiernan, Phelps Engineering, said septic innovation was still a few years off in the state. He said, "Vermont is 15 to 20 years behind in allowing innovative-type systems. It would be difficult to do on a community-wide basis."
Jack Smith asked select board chair Charlie Hosford, "What if we do nothing?" Hosford compared the municipal water project to driving an old car with high mileage. "It might be fine in 20 years, or it may not."
He added, "We'd rather stay ahead of the curve, rather than wait for a disaster."
Planning commission member Brian Fleisher said it was an insult to assume that the select board thinks residents are uninformed. That sentiment came directly from the people, who said they didn't understand the project.
IT'S A DISASTER
Development Review Board member Brian Shupe said, "If nothing is done, 30-year-old septic systems are going to become an issue." Jim Leyton added, "What is the projected cost for 10 to 15 years down the line? It's a disaster we'll have to deal with because we're forced to."
"Without infrastructure, there cannot be growth," said select board member Parker. He continued, "The town and its businesses are investing in its own potential, for future generations, we need to look at the bigger picture."
At the meeting's close, Hosford asked, "Is that the widespread feeling, that the owners in the service area should be the ones paying for a wastewater system, and the townspeople beyond the service area shouldn't have to pay?"
His question provoked a melee of people shouting over and at each other for several minutes while Capels struggled to regain control of the meeting.
"We're in a recession. We have an anti-business attitude in The Valley. Is $17 million the answer to growth in The Valley?" Mike Warner asked.
"Small businesses are responsible for the lifeblood of this Valley. Let's build them up before we start taxing," he added.